Friday 3 November 2017

Tanks, Catcalls and Correcting a Correction

On August 21st, 1968, star Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was scheduled to play Dvorak's Cello Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall, and the irony was lost on no one. The day before, half a million Warsaw Pact troops had poured into Czechoslovakia, land of Dvorak's birth, to crush a remarkable flowering of liberal socialism which, in Moscow's eyes, could not be allowed continue. For months, under the leadership of Alexandr Dubcek, Prague had been reforming industry and freedom of speech. Soviet tanks rolling into Czech cities, on August 20th, signaled the end of Moscow's patience.

Rostropovich, alive to the symbolism of his performance of the greatest Czech work for the instrument, reportedly played with tears in his eyes. On stage beside him were the Soviet conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. The mood in the hall was electric, though as the performance began, the protests which threatened to drown out the music subsided. The concert, which concluded with Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, has gone down in legend as one of the 20th century's most remarkable.

These sort of events always attract a certain degree of myth. Did tears really stream down Slava's face? Did anti-Soviet protesters really drown out the music? A letter to BBC Music Magazine, printed in their new December issue, sought to correct this one. No, Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, the impresarios who arranged the concert, firmly state in relation to the second. They write:

"As we were responsible for negotiating the visit of the cellist Mstislav Rostropotvich and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra to the BBC Proms on 21 August 1968 and subsequently to the Edinburgh Festival, we wish to point out the inaccuracies in Peter Haydn Pike's letter (September)."

They continue:

"In view of the Soviet invasion into Prague, we were all expecting trouble, but there was absolutely no interruption during Rostropovich's emotionally charged performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, no 'catcalls' to drown out the Shostakovich symphony, and the concert was broadcast in full."

The concert was broadcast, and the two pieces were released on CD, the Dvorak by BBC Legends and the Shostakovich on a separate disc by ICA Classics. Trouble is - there are interruptions, and there are catcalls. Hecklers threaten to hold up the start of Dvorak's Concerto, though they stop before the first note is heard. Things are different, though, in the Shostakovich. Hecklers yell, though it's not clear what, and the first, quiet bars of the Symphony are lost in a melee of protest and lots of shushing. (The first movement is not to be found on Youtube; Spotify users can find the recording there).

I'm not taking aim at the Hochhausers here, who've mixed with the legends of 20th century classical music and without whom London's concert scene would have been much the poorer. But memory's a funny thing, isn't it?

I took a pic of the page in question. Also, you can enjoy the "gems" from Twitter and Facebook.

The header picture is credited to "YouTube", though I suspect they didn't take it. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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