Music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich show mere politics cannot supress creativity

[From The National]

Not an altogether unproblematic article this, but worth reading

Listening to the opening bars of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major is a eureka moment. A haunting, late-career piece for cello and piano, it does so many of the things that great classical music is popularly supposed to do that it could almost act as a calling card for the genre.

Tuneful elegance? It’s full of it. Emotional profundity? Ditto. Great musicianship employed in the creation of beauty? Absolutely – from its opening bars, the cello’s sound is as rich and evocative as the smell of autumn woodsmoke. And in a backstory that few great pieces seem to be without, it was brought forth in sorrow. Prokofiev composed it in 1949, when the Soviet Union had banned his music, plunging him into debt shortly after his estranged wife had been sent to prison.

With the release of a new recording from 29-year-old German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, the piece is deservedly back in the spotlight. What’s more, it’s not the only great new recording of a Soviet composer to have come out recently. The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have also just released a new take on Shostakovich’s remarkable Symphony No 13 – with unlikely backing from the Huddersfield Choral Society sounding as Russian as a bear stuck up a fir tree.

Although their styles are very different, Prokofiev and Shostakovich have inevitably found themselves yoked together as Soviet Russians and contemporaries. Their lives and work reflect both the pressure and isolation of creative work in the Soviet Union and the remarkable creative successes that were achieved nonetheless. There’s an irony to this. Even long after their deaths, their music remains closely identified with the system that they tried to transcend.

This might have proved frustrating to them – if Prokofiev’s cello sonata sounds like anything, it’s an attempt to escape the present, not commemorate it. Listening to the new recording (with pianist Alexei Gryn­yuk and including music from Prokofiev’s contemporary Dmitry Kabalevsky), it’s not easy to place as music from the mid-20th century. Tune out a little and its rich romanticism sounds a bit like Brahms.

Elschenbroich’s performance brings to life Prokofiev’s wringing out of the expressive possibilities of the cello. Focusing as the piece does at first on the cello’s lower register, Elschenbroich’s playing has an almost catarrhal rasp to it, the heavily vibrating strings on those bottom notes filling the air with thick sound. As the piece develops and the pitch rises, the cello becomes almost candied, though kept in rhythmic check by extended passages plucked out in pizzicato and the insistent tick-tock of the accompanying piano. Together it forms a bittersweet whole that’s easy on the ear but hard to shake from the memory

The new Shostakovich recording could hardly be more of a contrast. Where Prokofiev’s piece isn’t immediately easy to place in time and space, Shostakovich’s music is unmistakably mid 20th century and as Russian as can be.

A vocal symphony that sets Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar to music, Shostakovich’s work commemorates the notorious Nazi genocide site of the same name in Kiev. To state the obvious, this means it was never intended as easy listening, but while the piece is often sombre it’s anything but austere. In its own way, the symphony also looks back, this time to Russian folk and the music of Mussorgsky – fans of Boris Godunov will recognise his imprint in the dramatic string and brass arrangements.

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