The three composers in this concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker from March 2009 represent the stylistic diversity of Russian music during the 20th century. At the same time, their biographies show the influence of contemporary historical events. Although Sergei Rachmaninov had to leave his homeland forever in 1918, he remained true to his unmistakable late Romantic idiom, which was defined by his deep love for Russian culture and music, all his life. This style already characterized his opulent, dark tone poem The Isle of the Dead from 1909, which is in the unusual 5/8 metre and was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting with the same title. Sergei Prokofiev began his career as a brilliant enfant terrible; after the October Revolution he lived for many years in America and Western Europe, then returned to the Soviet Union at the height of the worst Stalinist terror. His powerful but lyrically romantic (for example, in the slow movement) Fifth Symphony was already a great success during the Stalin era, but it easily outlasted the questionable stylistic ideal of “socialist realism” which prevailed at that time and, together with the “Classical” Symphony, it is regarded as the composer’s most successful contribution to the genre.
Like Rachmaninov, Igor Stravinsky eventually decided in favour of permanent exile; only once did he return to his Russian homeland, for a series of concert appearances in 1962. His only violin concerto, the premiere of which was conducted by the composer himself in Berlin in 1931, is generally assigned to his neoclassical creative period. Striking features of the work include his use of Baroque stylistic characteristics and a four-note chord in the solo violin, which is heard at the beginning of all four movements. “Virtuosity for its own sake has only a small role in my concerto,” Stravinsky declared. Nevertheless, there are enormous demands in the solo part, and violinist Viktoria Mullova approaches them with an impressive overall view of the work and crystal-clear articulation. After making his successful debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Waldbühne Concert in 2008, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel impressed listeners with his passion and precision during his second appearance with the orchestra.