British Music: The Proms go revolutionary

Proms 68
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus
Royal Albert Hall

September 3

The Last Night of the Proms is a grand British occasion with lots of pomp and circumstance and waving of Union Jacks. But one week out from that final concert a man was handing out a very different flag – the Russian hammer and sickle flag.

This was a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution and the concert was a month early, presumably so the Mariinsky Orchestra could be back home to play it.

It was an all-Russian programme – Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich – with the two 20th century works very much about revolutionary struggle.

First up was the rarely heard Cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution written by Prokofiev in 1937. This work would normally never get to the concert hall as it is political and very much of its time – although it could well be a favourite of Kim Jong Un and feature on the programme of the North Korean Symphony Orchestra for its revolutionary fervour telling the masses that “the crisis has come … our victory will be absolute and final.”

Like many religious cantatas, the texts are inane and mindless but it is great piece of music not easily identified as Prokofiev but it features traces of his Romeo and Juliet themes. There were also links to Russian church music and folk melodies.

The work opens with the speaker intoning the opening of the Communist Manifesto – “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism.” The long text Prokofiev used was taken from the writings of Lenin and tells of the birth of the revolution, recounting the major events and the drama of Lenin’s own part in it.

Prokofiev uses all the forces of the orchestra as well as including an air raid siren while the sounds of marching were provided by members of the orchestra stamping their feet. The Mariinsky chorus was impressive thundering out the texts and the interplay between the male and female chorus was stirring and dramatic. The work is a great example of how music by itself can be inspiring but add in political or religious texts and it all becomes banal.

Playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto was an inspiring Denis Matsuev who gave a dazzling account of the work which, while not one of the composer’s great works, has both drama and romanticism to it. Matsuev played with a delicate precision, moving from the laconic to the aggressive. At times his hands appeared to be crushing the keys while at other times they seemed to dance across them.

Unlike performances by the NZSO or the APO, he didn’t wait around for three or four lots of ovation. One lot was enough for him and he launched into an encore of Paganini Variations. Another two bouts of clapping led to him giving another encore.

The major work on the programme, Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 combines the romantic and heroic dimensions of the composer’s work. Composed at the same time as the Prokofiev work it is a much more dramatic and serious work without the earnest triviality displayed in Prokofiev’s Cantata.

This was a low point in the composer’s career and the symphony was an attempt to prove himself to be a reformed composer subtitling the work, "The practical answer of a Soviet artist to justified criticism."

In many ways it is an ambivalent work reflecting the success of the revolution while hinting at the terror and the human suffering that had taken place under the rule of Stalin.

It is the subtleties of the history of the revolution, the policies and politics of the regime as well as the personal angst the composer attempts to convey through the music. It is these along with the strong emotions, the complexity and drama of the work that need to be realised and the orchestra under Valery Gergiev made sure that this was achieved.

The man with the hammer and sickle flag waved the flag and cheered on the revolution at the end of the Prokofiev but no one else joined in and there was no more flag waving.