What is the connection between the United States of America, Venezuela, Russia and the art of beautiful sound? It’s quite simple: our man from Caracas, Gustavo Dudamel. The highly talented young conductor has long transcended the fiesta mood. His command of the Classical, Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire is that of an old stager – and that is not the only reason why he has been invited to the forefront of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So it comes as no surprise that Dudamel naturally masters an evening with the works of three Russian composers, each of which truly packs a punch. For who could claim that the interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s homonymous painting, is an easy task? Who would consider Igor Stravinsky’s extraordinarily cerebral and hence appealing Concerto en Ré a stroll? Or would anyone imagine that one could simply slam Sergei Prokofiev’s furious Fifth Symphony into the concert hall, just like that? Exactly. And that’s why Dudamel’s appearances at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker and the fabulous violin soloist Viktoria Mullova hold a promise for plenty of discussion. And they are certainly well worth listening to!
Three facets of 20th-century Russian music
Works by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev
Apart from the fact that they were all Russian, the composers Sergei Rachmaninov, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev have little in common. They were too different in terms of their overall character, and their careers as composers pursued such radically different paths that it is impossible for us to attempt anything but the vaguest generalizations. Throughout his entire life as a composer, Rachmaninov was committed to a musical idiom that can best be described as late Romantic, whereas Stravinsky’s works are remarkable for their constantly changing styles, from modernism to early Classicism. For his part, Prokofiev was obliged – especially during the last two decades of his life – to tread a narrow line between experimentation, the avant-garde, neoclassicism and the demands of “Soviet” aesthetics. To that extent these three composers embody three different facets that span the whole vast range of 20th-century Russian music.
Sergei Rachmaninov may be accepted as a famous pianist and as the creator of some highly virtuosic piano works, but as a composer of symphonic music he tends, rather, to be viewed askance and even to be dismissed altogether. And yet he was a master of instrumentation, a composer capable of producing highly sophisticated orchestral sonorities and of creating colours and moods that are sometimes wholly unique. He belonged to the Russian national school, a conservative composer too indebted to the tradition in which he grew up to be able to break away from it. He seems to have been able to sustain the tension between a late Romantic musical language and one that was more modern, without submitting in the process to a false or faux modernism.
Rachmaninov’s works often draw their inspiration from literature and the visual arts, and there is little doubt that Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead was an ideal source of inspiration for him. In a letter to the Armenian writer Marietta Sergeyevna Shaginyan, who advised him on his choice of poets for his op. 34 songs, Rachmaninov noted that “the mood should be rather more sad than cheerful. I’m not so lucky with bright tones”. And so he found in Böcklin’s painting exactly what he was looking for: an atmosphere of mystery, threatening shadows, the presence of death, the question of the afterlife and, finally, the mysterious figure of Charon, ferrying the dead across the dark waters of the Styx on their journey into the Underworld. The decisive impulse to write The Isle of the Dead op. 29 came from a black-and-white reproduction of Böcklin’s painting that Rachmaninov saw in Paris in 1907. When he later got to know the coloured original, he was not a little disappointed: “I was not much moved by the colour of the painting. If I had seen the original first, I might not have composed my Isle of the Dead.” For Rachmaninov, the crucial stimulus was the subject matter – the ancient myth – rather than its treatment at Böcklin’s hands.
The subject also offered the composer the opportunity to use the Dies irae motif, the ancient Gregorian sequence that fascinated him no less than it has fascinated so many other composers and that Rachmaninov used repeatedly in his works. In The Isle of the Dead, his use of the sequence is extremely discreet and sparing, and yet its influence is everywhere apparent, even if it is never cited in its entirety. The dramaturgy of the composition is also extremely skilful, the dark world of the dead being contrasted with the light-filled world of life. But by the end – following two great crescendos and a violent climax, it is death, of course, that gains the upper hand. Charon casts off from the island and abandons the dead to their fate in the afterlife.
The Isle of the Dead was written in Dresden in the early months of 1909. It received its first performance in Moscow in the April of that year under the composer’s direction. The work quickly found a home for itself in the concert halls of Russia and the Anglo-Saxon world, whereas its morbid mood meant that it initially encountered scepticism and reserve in Central Europe.
Igor Stravinsky repeatedly sought to engage with the concerto as a form, an engagement that finds expression in works that are idiosyncratic rather than classical in character. His composition of his Violin Concerto in D was due to a combination of several fortunate circumstances. It was commissioned in 1931 for the Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin by Dushkin’s patron, Blair Fairchild. But Willy Strecker of the publishing house of Schott also played a part in its composition. As the composer himself recalled, “on the one hand Strecker was very friendly with Dushkin, while on the other this was the first of my works to be published by Schott”. Stravinsky initially had certain doubts about the commission as he was afraid that Dushkin might simply be a virtuoso who hankered after showy effects and who was concerned only with bravura displays and brilliant showmanship. But at their very first meeting, it immediately became apparent that Stravinsky’s misgivings were misplaced.
Even so, Stravinsky continued to question his ability to write a violin concerto as he was afraid “that my slight knowledge of that instrument would not be sufficient to enable me to solve the many problems which would necessarily arise in the course of a major work specially composed for it”. The final impetus probably came from Paul Hindemith, who felt that Stravinsky’s unfamiliarity with the instrument might in fact be turned to his advantage. The work was written in France between the spring and autumn of 1931 in close collaboration with Dushkin.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto dates from a period in its composer’s life when he had developed a keen interest in the music of the Baroque. Although it was not inspired or influenced by any particular model, it is none the less – in Stefan Kunze’s words – the product of a “dialogue with history”. The movement headings, Toccata, Aria and Capriccio, recall the world of Bach, as does the musical substance of the work. “I am very fond of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins,” Stravinsky told Robert Craft, “as the duet of the soloist with the violin from the orchestra in the last movement of my own Concerto possibly may show. But my Concerto employs other duet combinations, too, and the texture is almost always more characteristic of chamber music than of orchestral music.” Stravinsky was not interested in violinistic virtuosity for its own sake but in combining the solo violin with the other instruments of the orchestra. But he is also reported to have told Willy Strecker that he wanted to write a genuine violin concerto, a work in which the spirit of the violin would be palpable in every bar. The piece received its first performance at an all-Stravinsky concert in the Berlin Philharmonie on 23 October 1931, when the Berlin Radio Orchestra was conducted by the composer himself. The soloist was Samuel Dushkin.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony in B flat major postdates its predecessor by fourteen years and is arguably its composer’s most interesting and convincing engagement with Classical symphonic form. In tackling the work, Prokofiev was not only returning to the world of the symphony but was also rounding off a particular phase in his development as a composer. In his earlier symphonies he had had recourse to material from existing stage works and ballet scores, whereas in the case of his Fifth Symphony he was turning to “pure” symphonic music.
Prokofiev worked simultaneously on his Fifth Symphony and on several other pieces during the summer of 1944. He completed the symphony in the autumn of that year, and it was the composer himself who conducted its first performance in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 13 January 1945 – the very day on which Soviet troops crossed the Vistula into Poland and launched their major counteroffensive against Hitler’s Fascist Germany.
In the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was hailed as a “profoundly impressive work of Soviet realism” and as a “symphonic epic on the subject of battle and victory”. The occasionally bombastic tone of the work encouraged western critics, too, to think that the music was closely bound up “with the historical events of recent years in Russia”. American commentators in particular were shocked to discover a work that “appealed all too openly to the masses”. Prokofiev must, of course, be defended against political and ideological misinterpretations. If he had any programme in mind, it was a universal rather than a political one. His aim was to write a symphony about “the greatness of the human spirit”, a “song to the free and happy human being, to his creative powers, his nobility and inner purity”.
In composing his Op. 100, Prokofiev discovered his mature style as a symphonist. His love of experimentation, the aggressive use of sonority and the violent outbursts of the earlier symphonies are barely perceptible here. Instead, the composer decided against pursuing the course that had taken him in the direction of modernism and experimentation and turned rather to neoclassicism. It was a change of direction that led to the charge that he had retreated to an aesthetically regressive position.
Translation: Stewart Spencer
Gustavo Dudamel was only twenty-three when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition organized by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Since then he has become an iconic figure in the world of classical music. He was born in Barquisimeto in Venezuela in 1981 and trained as a conductor, violinist and composer: he studied the violin with José Francisco del Castillo at the Latin American Academy for the Violin and took lessons in conducting with Rodolfo Saglimbeni and José Antonio Abreu. Since 1999 he has been music director of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. During the 2007/08 season he also became principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. He has already worked with Sir Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim. He made his United States debut in 2005 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an appearance that led to invitations to appear with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Israel Philharmonic and the Philharmonia of London. Between 2000 and 2008 Gustavo Dudamel appeared four times with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonie. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at its annual Waldbühne Concert on 15 June 2008. In September 2008 he was awarded the Würth Prize by Germany’s Jeunesses Musicales.
Viktoria Mullova studied the violin with Leonid Kogan in Moscow. Her exceptional musical gifts came to international attention in 1980 when she won first prize at the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki. Two years later she was awarded the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Viktoria Mullova appears in all the world’s leading centres of music and at all the most prestigious festivals, working with the most eminent conductors and orchestras as well as with ensembles specializing in early music. Chamber recitalists with whom she has worked include the pianist Katia Labèque, the harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone, the fortepiano virtuoso Kristian Bezuidenout and the cellist Peter Wispelwey. Her repertory ranges from the Baroque to the present day and includes the world premieres of a number of works that have been written specially for her. But she has also explored the world of jazz and gypsy music. Viktoria Mullova first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 1984, when she performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor op. 64 under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. Since then she has performed with the orchestra on frequent occasions, most recently in mid-November 2001, when she played the Beethoven Violin Concerto under the direction of Andrey Boreyko.