Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Music is in the soul of Russia
Stephen Moss tells it like it is in his Guardian music blog, and links to On An Overgrown Path:
It is of course distressing news that the great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich is seriously ill in a Moscow hospital. Long may this remarkable performer and life-force live. I once shared a lift with him on the morning after a concert he had conducted in Milan, and his extraordinary energy was apparent even then - at 7.30am, following a party that had gone on into the early hours. A bear hug from "Slava" leaves you winded: his commitment and passion, for life and for music, are legendary; listen to him perform the Bach cello suites or conduct Tchaikovsky's ballets, and you will soon realise why he has been a towering presence in music-making for half a century.
How many other ailing classical musicians would make the news in the way that Slava has? And an even more pertinent question: if Slava were British, would our head of state or prime minister have made a special trip to hospital to wish him well, as Russian president Vladimir Putin is said to have done recently? Somehow, I can't imagine the Queen or Blair rushing to be at the bedside of Charles Mackerras or Colin Davis or Janet Baker if, perish the thought, they were seriously ill in hospital.
In Britain, the link between culture and politics is less umbilical than in Russia. The part serious art plays in national life and the taste of our leaders is also rather more restricted. Perhaps if Lester Piggott had a life-threatening condition, our racing-mad Queen would gallop to his aid; and Blair would, presumably, want to be there if, say, Noel Gallagher was stricken with something terrible. But Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies? Even the Master of the Queen's Music would, I suspect, only get a card.
Putin is said to be fond of the popular classics - Tchaikovsky and Schubert have been mentioned - and also claims to have read a good deal of Russian literature. This may just be spin. But I like to believe it is true - that the steely-eyed but sweet-faced former KGB colonel really does have a penchant for great music and a soft spot for Slava, who is also a political hero in Russia for standing alongside Boris Yeltsin in the face of a communist coup in 1991. And that this represents something profoundly Russian - the sense that music is in the soul of this great nation. That what is now thought of as a country of oligopolists and mafiosi, poverty, hunger and exploitation, is still, at heart, the land of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Horowitz, David Oistrakh, Maxim Vengerov ... and on and on. Russia has given more to music-making in the past 120 years than any other country.
The close link between politics and art has a downside, as Shostakovich discovered when Stalin began to take an over-critical view of his work in the 1930s. But I almost prefer that to the indifference of our own leaders, who wouldn't know a Tintoretto from a traffic cone. Thatcher, Major, Blair - do they have an ounce of artistic interest between them? No wonder the Millennium Dome's celebration of culture on New Year's Eve 1999 was such a fiasco: it was organised by a political class for whom great art has no value. Whose budget is to be slashed so the Olympics can get its billions? Why, the Arts Council of course.
Soviet communism proved to be a disaster, but boy did it take the arts seriously - Jade Goody and Cat Deeley would not have been major figures in Smolensk circa 1938. And I don't suppose President Putin is perfect, but he certainly knows a great musician when he sees one - and somehow finds the time in what must be a busy day running his chaotic country to tell a sick man what he has meant to Russia.
Meanwhile back On An Overgrown Path let's remember that Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated both his cello concertos to Mstislav Rostropovich. Listen, and see, Rostropovich talking about Shostakovich and the composition of Cello Concerto No 1 via these BBC Radio 3 online resources.
Rostropovich on playing to Shostakovich
Rostropovich on the Cello Concerto no. 1
And now read more about the musical tastes of our politicians
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