Sunday, 15 November 2020

Who gives a Schmidt?

Who cares if it's the right guy? It's all Schmidt anyway

Classical music gossip blogger Norman Lebrecht has been laying into Austrian Composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) in The Critic:

“A former cellist in Mahler’s Vienna Opera orchestra, Schmidt was an embittered Austrian whose constant resentments isolated him from the mainstream. In his last year of life, he became an enthusiastic Nazi. He is regarded by the Vienna Philharmonic as part of their symphonic heritage and several leading conductors evince enthusiasm for his four symphonies.”

He goes on:

"I decided to sample [Berliner Philharmoniker Music Director] Kirill Petrenko’s passion for his 1933 fourth symphony in the hope of achieving enlightenment. To my regret, enlightenment came there none.

“The symphony is relentlessly regressive. It opens with a statement that could be mistaken for early Bruckner, or even Schumann, and it evolves within a restricted sound jacket, as if Mahler and Strauss never existed. There is a brief swipe of Mahler six minutes into the first movement, but Schmidt gets over it, settling into wish-washy swathes of Tristanesque Wagnerisms. I am neither intrigued much by his monologue nor moved at all. I am not even much annoyed by it. This is music that is going nowhere. It is, needless to say, dazzlingly played and with pinpoint precision by the Berlin Philharmonic, but to what end? It’s like asking a Michelin-starred chef to make you a burger. Hold the pickle.”

To what end? Schmidt composed his dark, sorrowful Fourth Symphony as a requiem for his dead daughter.

Also, the idea that Schmidt was an “enthusiastic Nazi” isn’t supported by any evidence; in fact, a number of people have gone out of their way to note that, despite the fact that he once gave a Nazi salute, Schmidt doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in the Nazis at all. Evidence for this comes from the comments of Lebrecht’s own blog; a few weeks before this derisory review of the new recording of the Fourth Symphony from the Berliner Philharmoniker, he’d taken a swipe at Deutsche Grammophon for releasing Paavo Jarvi’s new CD set of Schmidt’s 4 symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, repeating the Nazi claim in the process. Below the line, Georg Tintner’s widow Tanya weighed in, commenting:

“It is very dangerous to claim ex cathedra that “this guy was a nazi supporter” when you really don’t know. I quote from a letter my husband (Georg Tintner) wrote to another conductor who was about to give a performance of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln: ‘You asked me whether Franz Schmidt was a Nazi or not. In difficult times many things are not either black or white. I try to answer this question as well as I can. The doctor of Franz Schmidt, who was also a brilliant violinist, was perhaps his best friend for many years. They played chamber music together and Dr Adler (I think that was his name) looked after him till he died. This man was a Jew. I also know that Franz Schmidt helped some of his Jewish students and friends to get out of Austria. These are the positive sides. But unfortunately Franz Schmidt wrote a cantata in homage of Hitler. It is very fortunate that he died before finishing this piece. The Universal Edition holds the manuscript of the unfinished work and refuses (in my opinion wisely) to publish it. So what can you say? One thing is clear to me, that he certainly did not expose himself more incriminatingly than for instance Hans Pfitzner, whom I also adore.’

Georg Tintner was a renowned Bruckner conductor, born in Austria in 1917, who fled the country in 1938 because he was Jewish. He hardly makes Schmidt sound “enthusiastic” about Nazism.

There’s more, though.

Lebrecht cites the work’s “regressive” language as among its failings. It’s certainly not avant-garde for its time and could very easily be described as conservative for 1933, when it was written. It’s also wonderful, but that’s another point. Does it open “with a statement that could be mistaken for early Bruckner, or even Schumann”? Absolutely not. The First Symphony, from 1899, does, but the Fourth begins with a doleful trumpet solo that could never be mistaken for Bruckner or Schumann.

So here’s what I think happened. Lebrecht received a copy of Paavo Jarvi’s new Schmidt cycle, gave it a cursory hate-listen, and then stuck on the Berliner 4th shortly afterwards and snorted at how shit he thought that was too. Then, when he fired off his review, he got the symphonies mixed up and didn’t bother to go back and check.

Oh, and the review is headed by a picture of French composer Florent Schmitt, and Schmidt is spelled “Schmit” in the pull-quote.

Absolute Schmidt-show.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Review: "Some" rather than "The" essential Joe Hisaishi

Dream Songs: The Essential Joe Hisaishi

Decca’s double album of Joe Hisaishi film music isn’t quite as essential as is claimed on the cover, but contains enough good stuff to justify a listen. The best comes from a session Hisaishi recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra back in 2010, not previously released outside Asia. The LSO’s playing is as sumptuous and tight as you’d expect, with a selection of familiar pieces from Miyazaki Hayao’s films and some more unusual items, such as Water Traveler from an unfamiliar 1990s Japanese film about kid samurai. Leader Roman Simovic is luxary casting in the Kiki's Delivery Service violin solos. The LSO’s strings give the heft needed to do justice to Hisaishi’s trademark sound and sweeping melodies; elsewhere in the collection, which is a hodgepodge of recordings from lots of sources, the playing is less compelling. Hisaishi himself plays the piano on many of the tracks, but his hard and rhythmically rigid playing left me wondering what a more accomplished pianist might make of some of the ballades. There is, however, plenty for a Hisaishi fan to enjoy.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Bach in a time of Coronavirus

What can violinists do when they're stuck at home? Julia Fischer's solution? Call some friends and record a joint Bach Chaccone, of course. In a Facebook post, she and her colleague explained:

I had the idea to do a "quarantine version" of Bach's Chaconne together with some other violinists. Here's what Augustin Hadelich says about how it started: "In early April, I was talking to my friend The Official Julia Fischer, and she told me about an idea she had during this quarantine: what if she played the first 8 bars of Bach's Chaconne and then asked friends and colleagues to record the other variations? I immediately jumped on board, and volunteered to compile the videos from everybody, and now the video is ready! Other members of the "cast" include (in order of appearance): Renaud Capuçon, Klaidi Sahatçi, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Nicola Benedetti, Andreas Janke, Daniel Röhn, Lisa Batiashvili, Lena Neudauer, James Ehnes, Stefan Jackiw, Rudens Turku and Vadim Gluzman! (And everyone plays more than once) It was really fun to work on something together, and this video will make for a lovely memory of this strange time in which we are living!"

Watch the complete performance(s) below:

Main image is a screenshot from the video. Images are used under the principle of "fair use" for the purposes of review and study, and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s). Read an extract from my article for The Strad magazine about Shostakovich's violin music, including interviews with Julia Fischer and Vadim Gluzman, here.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

"A society performing their national myth" - Sir David Pountney on his production of Prokofiev's War and Peace

WNO War and Peace (Photo: Clive Barda)
When Welsh National Opera returns to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, this week, they bring with them a real rarity – a production of Prokofiev’s mightiest operatic undertaking, and perhaps his greatest disappointment. Prokofiev conceived of his setting of Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a contribution to the Soviet war effort at a moment, during WW2, when Russians were finding themselves living out a national drama of Tolstoian proportions. Prokofiev’s adaptation grew in scale, from a compressed narrative of 11 scenes – first performed in 1945, one month after the final victory against Germany – to a two-evening epic, which Prokofiev would never see staged in its entirety. A souring political climate in 1947 and 1948, culminating in the infamous denunciation of composers including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, put paid to the composer’s hopes of seeing the opera produced and he died 5 years later – on the same day as Stalin – bitterly regretting its failure.

Veteran opera director Sir David Pountney first brought War and Peace to WNO in 2018 and it now transfers to London for two special performances. Pountney’s production places the novel’s characters into a Nineteenth Century setting, but has Soviet wartime soldiers and personnel, from Prokofiev’s own day, watching and participating in the action. During the opera’s second half, which focuses on the Napoleonic war episodes, Pountney uses battle scenes from Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1960s film, projected behind the set, to evoke the novel’s action and to broaden further the commentary on Russian retelling of War and Peace. 

I spoke to David Pountney ahead of the London performances about his production of the opera, and about his broader experience with Russian culture. 

Sir David Pountney during rehearsals for WNO's War and Peace (Photo: Jimmy Swindells)

AM: When did you first come to Russian opera and culture?

DP: Well, I used to go with my parents regularly to the theatre in Oxford and when it came indeed to the opera, my parents actually took part in something called “music camp”, which was basically a way of people taking holidays during the war. They met in this farm house near Newbury and made music, and there was quite a lot of really good musicians there. And I remember, in 1952, they did a performance of Fidelio, for the Coronation, and I vividly remember sitting in an angle of the beam of this barn, and hearing Floristan singing his aria. I also remember the members of orchestra digging the pit, which not many orchestras would do now! Then my parents took me to see Boris Godunov at Covent Garden, I remember, a couple of years later when I was seven or so. So I had plenty of contact with opera from a relatively early age. 

And was it Boris Godunov that sparked an interest in the Russian side of things? 

I’ve no idea. I remember it was a last-minute decision to go and we got a couple of seats in a box above the orchestra, above the brass, which I remember was very exciting. I became a trumpeter, by the way. 

You’ve been associated with a lot of projects related to East-European and Russian music. Did you travel much to the Eastern Bloc before 1991? 

I did. I went to St Petersburg in the 70s – Leningrad as it was, obviously, then – because I was going to do a production of [Tchaikovsky’s] Queen of Spades in Kassel, and I decided that since so many of the locations are actually existing, I thought I’d better go and see these locations. It was a terrible mistake because the stage is nothing about real locations. For one thing, real locations tend not to fit on the stage, like mountains and things like that. I actually directed an opera at the Komische Oper in East Berlin during the 80s, before the Wall came down. And I spent some time in Poland and quite a bit of time in Czechoslovakia, as it then was. So I knew my way around the Eastern Bloc quite well.

When you came to working on Prokofiev’s War and Peace, how did you make sense of the different versions that exist?

I knew [Scottish musicologist] Rita McAllister, because she and I had worked on [Prokofiev’s] The Gambler together many years ago and I knew that she’d done this reduced “original” version. I thought that since that meant reducing it in some way, that that might make it more performable for us. So I started a conversation with Rita about that, and of course we ended up doing something of a hybrid really, because it turned out that from a purely pragmatic point of view, there were too many good things that weren’t in the original version, like the Ball Scene, for example, and it seemed a pretty dumb idea to do War and Peace without the Ball Scene. So we ended up creating a kind of hybrid version, which I think Rita was not terribly pleased about in the end, because she’d done all this research and wanted something that kept close to her research, but I think it was a practical solution. 

Do you happen to recall any significant portions that didn’t appear in your version? It’s my impression that the Kirov/Mariinsky version runs another 40 or 45 minutes.

Well that’s right – you’d have to look up and compare the versions. There’s a lot of choruses. The Bolshoi version, for example, has a terribly tedious long chorus at the beginning of it - a chorus to the Tsar on his birthday, which is very much better left out. And there are of course innumerable warlike choruses and that kind of thing. I think the version that we got is pretty good. Some people might complain about the “comic” ending, which is the original ending, and of course we slightly had our cake and ate it by giving the Soviet ending as a curtain call, if you remember that.

Well, it’s so glorious that you can’t not have it – such an incredible tune. 

It’s a good tune, yes.

Yes. Now, in a sense, the opera is a massive compression of the source material – it has to be. What is the effect of going from an enormous novel to a four-hour opera on the characters in it?

Well, I think there is a very considerable degree of simplification, no question. I guess the character who is not entirely simplified, but which it’s most difficult to realise is Pierre. What you don’t get at all are the periods of his fairly grotesque misbehavior, his sort of “hooray-Henry” past history. So you meet Pierre at a point at which he’s already become rather sensitive and complex and the sort of “Boris Johnson” version of Pierre, which you do get in the novel, is missing entirely.

Do you think the libretto does a good job of compressing the novel?

On the whole, I think it does. As it inevitable for Russians undertaking this exercise, I think they were a little too faithful to the novel. Virtually all of the dialogue is actually taken from the novel. And I think sometimes they’d have been better off writing it themselves. Sometimes the libretto is actually not very clear because they’ve lifted sentences from the novel without the huge background buildup to that sentence that the novel has.

Were there moments as a director that you felt you had to underscore in a certain way in order to convey the importance of a moment or piece of information?

What is missing, quite badly missing – and I don’t think I was successful or found a way of putting this into the opera – is the way in which Natasha is erotically captivated by Anatole Kuragin. The whole description of her going to the theatre and having Anatole stare at her eyes the whole time, or stare at her tits, basically, is all missing, and so I think you do have a feeling in the opera that you’re not quite clear how it was that one minute she was dancing ecstatically with Prince Andre and then the next minute she’s running off with this cad. It’s unexplained in the opera, I think.

WNO War and Peace: Lauren Michelle as Natasha and Mark Le Brocq as Pierre
(Photo: Clive Barda)

And is it a problem that characters disappear for a long time? Were you aware of that problem when you were working things out?

You mean Andrei? Of course, Natasha disappears totally.

Yes, and we spend a long time with Kutuzov in the second half – necessarily of course – but I guess that means we’ve left a lot of the characters behind while we’re with the war.

I mean, it is odd that they didn’t somehow deal with what happens to Pierre and Natasha after. It’s not entirely clear in the novel either, but you’re definitely left with a feeling that they’re about to get together.

And on to this, we have something of a framing device – Tolstoy appears in your production and Pierre assumes his mantel at the very end.


When you’re coming up with something like that, do you have to make a careful calculation about how much time you give to an idea like that?

Well, I think in this case you can only see how much time there was. I couldn’t have given any more time to it really – there weren’t opportunities. So it was really a question of whether it was possible to read that idea in the amount of time available.

You decided to produce it in English rather than Russian – what informs a decision like that?

Actually, very simply, that in the piece you have over 60 named roles, so the idea that you have all these people performing away for over three hours in a fog of incomprehension is a problem. Of course, people are professionals and they learn what is being said to them, and the top principals will obviously put a lot of effort into that, but nonetheless you are hearing something you learned somewhere – “that’s what he’s saying to me in this bar”, rather than actually hearing what he’s saying to you in this bar. So I think there’s an incomparable generation of stage energy and feeling and emotion coming from that fact that everybody understands what everybody’s saying. In an opera that is about collective experience, it would have made it much less intense from the performers’ point of view if they were struggling to remember what they once looked up the chap singing at them was actually saying. I think this is an aspect that is not sufficiently discussed when people are talking about so-called linguistic authenticity.

But does this need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, rather than a blanket rule one way or another?

Yeah, right. I mean, no one needs to know exactly what’s being said in La Traviata.

This production needed to fit into a least 4 different theatres. Does that have an effect on the decisions you make about what goes on on the stage?

Yes, obviously. We could only contemplate doing it because we knew we could do it with a smaller group of people because there were fewer of the huge choral numbers. There wouldn’t be dressing room facilities in those theatres for those numbers of people, so you’d have to be hiring porta-cabins, or having them change on a bus or something. So, I mean, there were definitely practical considerations. 

And you made use of some preexisting set as well, from Ian Bell’s In Parenthesis [produced at WNO in 2016]. Was that a similar kind of consideration?

Well, actually, that was more idea-based, because when I was thinking about what this War and Peace would feel like, I had the idea of it of being a sort of collective narrative, as though a society were performing their national myth, rather as we might reenact Dunkirk, or the Battle of Britain, or whatever. In order to achieve that one would need something like a kind of amphitheater, in which the characters could both perform and be an audience, and having thought about that for a short while, I realised that I’d actually got that set in the cupboard. I didn’t need to redo it.  

Some of the press coverage at the time raised an eyebrow at some of the contemporary resonance of an emboldened Russia. Was that something that you thought about, amidst all of these glorifying choruses at the end of the opera, that it could in a sense be Russia in 2018 or 19?

Well, or course, not least because the whole Novichok thing came along quite some time after we’d decided to do it, and also because we were involved with the Russian ambassador in one way or another in an actually unsuccessful attempt to find an oligarch who help fund the enterprise. But of course, we were aware of that and the fact is in the events that inspired this opera, the Soviet Union was our ally. We’d certainly have had a hell-a-lot harder job beating the Germans if the Soviets hadn’t been largely doing it for us. 

In the context of the Russian and Soviet canon, how important do you think this opera is?

I think it inspired Prokofiev to write some of his most eloquent and lyrical music, so it’s sort of inherently a “popular” opera really, once people thought of going to it. I think it responds to the tradition of the artform, particularly as set out by Verdi, as an expression of the state on stage, which has become increasingly rare amongst contemporary operas, which tend to focus on other things. So it’s a kind of grand element in the operatic tradition, and I think it has three or four wonderful characters in it, wonderful operatic characters, quite beautifully realised by Prokofiev. I think it’s very worth keeping in the repertoire.

My thanks to Sir David Pountney for the interview and to Welsh National Opera for the use of the photographs.

Monday, 17 June 2019

100 years since the birth of Galina Ustvolskaya

Today marks the centenary of the birth of the composer Galina Ustvlskaya, in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in 1919. After studying composition with Shostakovich during WW2, she developed one of the most singular voices of Twentieth Century music - a truly distinctive sound at once fragile and brutal. It was my very considerable privilege last year to speak to a number of people who knew her and worked with her, including the film maker Josee Voormans, the pianist and composer Reinbert de Leeuw, the pianist Alexei Lubimov and the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. You can read a the full article, entitled The Inner Mountain, at Van Magazine.

The image accompanying this post shows Josee Voormans with Galina Ustvolskaya during the filming of Voormans's documentary Scream Into Space, an essential starting point for anyone interested in this remarkable Russian musical figure. The photo is used with kind permission of Josee Voormans.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Read my article on Shostakovich violin music in the current Strad - Interviews with Fischer, Kremer, Gluzman

Image result for shostakovich and oistrakh
It began with a fascinating conversation with violinist Vadim Gluzman in Amsterdam, last year. We spoke about Shostakovich's violin music for two hours, ahead of his performance of the Second Violin Concerto with Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and you can read some excerpts of that discussion in a feature article in the Mary 2019 issue of The Strad, out now.

I was then lucky enough to speak with Gidon Kremer and Julia Fischer about their experiences with Shostakovich - in the case of Kremer, his memories of meeting the man himself. It wouldn't have been possible without the generous help of all three superstar soloists, along with Anja Rauschardt and Sonia Simmenauer, who were kind enough to put me in touch with two of my interviewees. It was also made possible by Bryan Rowell of the DSCH Journal, who kindly gave permission for the use of some translations made for the journal, and Elizabeth Wilson, whose own research informed the article also. I'm also grateful to Charlotte Smith at The Strad for her help and encouragement.

UPDATE: You can read a substantial chunk of the article here. Go on. Treat yourself.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Remembering Rosa Luxemburg 100 years on

Would Rosa Luxemburg have changed the world? We'll never know, because she was murdered in the act of doing so, 100 years ago, by men who would go on to join the Nazis party, in the midst of an uprising she didn't really believe in.

She is known to school history students the world over as a leader of the revolutionary Spartacist League, who had a go at emulating the Bolshevik Revolution on the streets of Berlin in January 1919. Apparently, she considered it misconceived from the start, but supported her comrades in their bid to forge a Communist state from the ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm's war-ravaged regime.

The uprising lasted a few days; the new democratic government turned to paramilitary WW1 veterans for help, and looked on in horror as the men with guns dispensed their own bloody justice. A book published 20 years ago in Germans and just now in English found that the men who murdered Luxemburg faced little in the way of justice themselves, and found gainful employment in the Nazi state and its post-war successor. 

It seems doubtful that Luxemburg could have made much of a mark on inter-war Germany if she'd lived longer - her's was one of a number of attempts to establish a German workers' state, all of which ended abruptly and brutally. But as I've turned over her image and fate in mind, it's seemed to me that she has stayed with us as a tragic symbol of an era when idealism was cheap, and life cheaper still. Looking back, her end was a bell-weather for a generation of Europeans who wanted a lighter world at the precise moment that others were engaged in shrouding it in darkness.

Also on my mind on this day is Frederic Rzewski's hour-long piano work The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975), which puts a Chilean political song through the ringer, for it to emerge after 60 minutes tinged with the pain of experience and sacrifice. The idealism and the terrible cost are all there, just as they are for anyone who cares to glance back at the century that separates us from Rosa Luxemburg.

Any images used here fall under "fair use" and are reproduced for the purposes of review and study. They will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review: An Absorbing Schubert "Great" from Bavaria

Schubert: "Great" Symphony in C
BR Klassik

Here’s another live Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recording that makes you wish you’d been there. Schubert’s 7th, 8th, 9th or just “Great” Symphony (depending how you count) is given a straight forward but absorbing performance, very well played, bar an uncharacteristic moment of confusion in the acceleration out of the first movement’s introduction. Mariss Jansons chooses quick tempi, and it’s a sign of his good judgment that the fast movements move swiftly by without feeling hurried along, though the Andante is a little harried. This “Great” is light and cheery where others are burdened by darker things; it’s more like a massive escalation of Haydn than a premonition of Bruckner. And if that all sounds like the point has been missed, it hasn’t. It’s just that they’ve found a different point in this big box of possibilities.

For regular reviews and blog posts, follow this blog using the bar on the right, or on Twitter at @devilstrillblog.

Read previous record reviews here.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Stalin's Favourite Stalin

The actor Mikheil Gelovani as Stalin in the film The Fall of Berlin (1950)

At school, I run a film club, and our most recent film was The Death of Stalin. The text that follows is from my introduction to the movie:

As chance would have it, I was just the other night at the first performance of Welsh National Opera’s new production of Sergei Prokofiev’sepic opera War and Peace. War and Peace caused Prokofiev no end of trouble: he had been lured back to the USSR in 1936, after almost two decades away in Europe, with the promise of artistic freedom and of a position as the Soviet Union’s leading composer. But in reality he found he was not free at all, and he spent the last 13 years of his life trying to get his mega-opera staged in its entirety. He thought he’d hit upon a winner: Tolstoy’s story of heroic Russian victory against Napoleon seemed totally right for the 1940s, just when the USSR was taking on Hitler’s army in the greatest war in history. It was potentially tricky, because the book and the opera commemorated one of the great triumphs of Tsarist Russia, but history was too important a weapon in the propaganda war to be ignored entirely. The audience could forget about the Tsar and instead focus on the great military hero of 1812, General Kutuzov, and make the obvious connection with their leader and teacher, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet government, though changed its mind very often about what was acceptable and what was not, and Prokofiev’s opera never quite made the cut. A second, much sadder occurrence of chance was that Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day in 1953. Apparently, there were no flowers at Prokofiev’s memorial, because they had all been taken for Stalin’s funeral. But Stalin had, after all, spent two decades terrorising the Soviet people, liquidating millions of them in his slave labour camps and deliberate famines. Even in death, the fear lived on. No one was brave enough to steal so much as a rose from Stalin to offer to a mere composer.

It’s difficult for us now to imagine how powerful Stalin was, or what it would have been like to live under his rule. One well-known musician, who grew up in those days, told me that it is simply not possible for westerners to understand. You cannot imagine, he said. In the 1930s, Stalin had terrorised his population with arbitrary executions and deportations to Siberia. It didn’t really matter who died; Stalin wanted to eliminate his opponents, but he worked out that you could just kill anyone and the effect was the same. City authorities were instructed to round up and kill so-many thousands of people, regardless of their identity. If you introduced enough fear into people’s minds, they just stayed in line. Husbands or wives would be taken in the night by the secret police, and at work the next day, the remaining partner would have to make sure they smiled. To shed a tear for your disappeared spouse was to cry for an enemy of the people.

Terror was only one tool of the tyrant, however. Stalin controlled all information. Had you visited Moscow in the middle of the last century, you would have seen giant banners of the gods of Communism: Marx, Lenin and Joseph himself. The food on your table was put there by Stalin. The wage in your pocket, the school where you studied; thank you, Stalin. He may as well have been the sun in the sky. The films in the cinema celebrated all the wonderful things about Soviet life. They told you that Stalin had brought order to the chaos of Tsarist Russia. They told you that Stalin had led the nation against the greatest evil in history, and won. They didn’t have to tell you this; they showed you. More than one actor played Stalin on screen, but he had a favourite. Mikheil Gelovani was so good at it that he wasn’t allowed to play anyone else. Once you’ve played a god, you don’t act the part of mere mortals. European history was rewritten for the epic propaganda film The Fall of Berlin in 1950, which shows the saintly Stalin (dressed in white) leading the good fight while his supposed allies scheme and plot. It’s actually a lot like Prokofiev’s War and Peace, which the composer was still fiddling with at the time, though it was Shostakovich who got to write the music for the film. There’s a love story, the lovers are separated by war, and then Stalin leads his Soviet people to victory. At the end of the film, Gelovani’s Stalin flies into Berlin to give a speech to the Russian victors. It didn’t happen, but Stalin liked the scene so much that he regretted not having done it for real.

A lot of people smile in The Fall of Berlin, but the smiles were only for the camera. When the film was released, Stalin was in the middle of unleashing a fresh wave of terror, which culminated in the supposed Doctor’s Plot, a fake conspiracy which was used to purge Jews from the medical profession. All of this was carried out by Stalin’s right-hand man and secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, who in his spare time liked to cruise round Moscow in his limousine in the small hours and pick up young ladies to drug, rape and bury in the garden. But the terror and fear and executions finally did it for Stalin. When he fell ill, in 1953, it took hours before anyone was brave enough to enter his bedroom. There weren’t any doctors left; they were all in prison. And without the boss to tell them what to do, his deputies ran around frantically, suspicious of each other and trying to stay alive. It would have been funny had it not been so awful.

There’s a fine line, though, between funny and awful. Armando Iannucci saw as much in Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel La mort de Staline, and he’s made it into a funny and horrible film. If, at the end, you wonder how much of it is true, the answer is: the broad strokes. They’ve compressed the timeframe; what appears to take days in reality took longer. We don’t really know all the details, and that suits the storytellers just fine. It works as a comedy, because the way in which people behave in awful situations is often so absurd. Not everyone saw the funny side – one leading historian wrote a rather po-faced article, counting the historical errors and referring to the film as “Carry On Up the Kremlin”.

Jason Issacs in The Death of Stalin

But the joke really fell flat in Moscow, where The Death of Stalin has the dubious honour of being the first film to be banned since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Public figures called the film “vile, repugnant and insulting”, and although the banning was partly an attempt by the Russian government to put behind it an embarrassing episode involving the release of Paddington 2, it was also clear that the film did not fit a particular version of history which Putin’s government is keen to impose. Like General Kutuzov before him, Stalin is a figure who suits the aspirations of the current leader of Russia. In Stalin, if you ignore the killings and the torture, rests the image of strong leader who, if you tell the story right, united the Soviet state behind the single purpose of defeating fascism. Stalin was not the only person who could cherry-pick from history. And so, the Russian film industry is very busy producing sumptuous films which glorify the Second World War and the heroism of the Russians who fought in it. A notable example is Panfilov’s 28 Men, a 2016 war film telling the story of a group of Russian soldiers who held out against overwhelming German forces during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. At the time, the Soviet newspaper Pravda carried a report detailing the noble self-sacrifice of the troops; the problem was, it was only partly true. It happened over 70 years ago, but when the distance between the legend and the reality was brought up recently, the Russian culture minister retorted angrily that the story was “a sacred legend that shouldn’t be interfered with. People that do that are filthy scum.”

Of course, it’s easy to point out the holes in other people’s national myths. We certainly could ask where all the successful British films are that properly interrogate the complex legacy of colonialism. And it is true that Putin is no Stalin. There are no untold millions languishing in secret prison camps in Russia today. There aren’t long lists of names being issued by the Kremlin for immediate liquidation, though here in Wiltshire, we know they’re dabbling. But Putin’s government demonstrates the familiar irritation that authoritarians usually show for those who fail to treat the useful bits of history with the required respect. 

Image(s) are used under the principle of fair use for the purposes of review and study and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Friday, 31 August 2018

Review: Mariss Jansons's extraordinary Bruckner 8

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8
BR Klassik

I had thought Bruckner a closed book to me; all that repetition, all that alienating monumentalism. This, though, is a record to challenge prejudices. Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have produced an extraordinary, flowing performance, filled with the kind of playing and thinking needed to make sense of this vast symphony. It’s all beautifully recorded – only the concluding applause gives away that this is a concert performance. Bruckner fans are talking about this as one for the ages; it’s certainly one to convince the cautious and sceptical.

For regular reviews and blog posts, follow this blog using the bar on the right, or on Twitter at @devilstrillblog.