Promenade conductor replies to just criticism
AS PART OF THE REVOLUTIONARY MUSIC SERIES, the BBC Proms’ nod to the centenary was programmed by conductor Valery Gergiev and performed by his Mariinsky Orchestra and chorus, a smaller set than the music demanded.
He opened with the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Prokofiev’s offering for the 1937 anniversary. It’s a strange piece, not often played, yet recognised as having excellent musical credibility. It is a seamless sequence of choral pieces with titles such as ‘Revolution’ and ‘The Constitution’ with texts from Engels, Lenin and Stalin. It opens with Marx’s reflection: “Philosophers have simply explained the world in different ways. The point is to change it.” Quotes from Stalin are perhaps misappropriated. For example: “Lenin willed us to…strengthen the dictatorship.” The piece is scored to include amateur performances and unusual sound effects such as foot-stamping, sirens and machine guns. The latter was not in evidence this time.
During the same period Shostakovich had completed Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, subsequently denounced by Pravda. Perhaps it was this, or the poor review given to Prokofiev’s Cantata by the Committee of Artistic Affairs that led to the piece never being performed in the composer’s lifetime. Both composers would have been aware of the show trials of Zinoviev and Kamenev.
Gergiev is not without controversy himself. His criticism of performances by Pussy Riot some five years ago and his continued support of Putin’s actions have lost him much support. But the sometimes jingoistic prommers showed their enjoyment along with an audience member in the choir seats who shouted: "Long live the October Revolution" and waved a red flag before the interval. But one wonders if Gergiev’s programming of Shostakovich’s follow-up Fifth Symphony is his own ‘response to justified criticism’ from the west.