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Rustem Hayroudinoff, a Russian pianist based in London, echoes this: perhaps we've always taken a rose-tinted view of the "Russian School". Under the Soviet system, he emphasises, the selection of artists allowed to represent the country abroad was tightly controlled. Some were required to work for the KGB. In the West, because of their rarity, they could be unduly mythologised. "The old generation was sometimes hugely overrated," he says. "Richter did some great things, but he did mediocre things too. Today the young ones have a lot of talent, but it is diluted, like everywhere else. Meanwhile many people didn't even know of great pianists like Vladimir Sofronitzky or Stanislav Neuhaus as they weren't touted by the government and weren't allowed abroad, so ended their lives broken alcoholics."

There could be a two-way distorting mirror at work here. While the West may have revered certain Russian performers to excess, the Russian espousal of supposedly Western-style consumerism and capitalism seems peculiarly exaggerated. "I think perhaps since all the developments in the western world come to Russia so late," Jurowski says, "they often appear in rather ridiculous, sometimes perverse forms. Capitalism in Russia today reminds me, at its extremes, of early capitalism in the histories of France, Germany and especially the US." 

It seems that something more sinister might be afoot. Russia may have imported the approach of some Western promoters who package indifferent music-making as a way to make a fast buck. But it has also exported into Western colleges, orchestras and ensembles a mindset that regards capitalism and the West as essentially corrupt and takes this almost as carte blanche to beat it at its own supposed game. 

"The Soviet mentality expected capitalism to involve somewhat dishonest behaviour," Rudy confirms. "First the corruption was on an individual level with the oligarchs — the country was robbed. Now corruption has become widespread. You have to know the right individuals and it is very difficult to be independent from politicians." When he visits Russia now, he says, he barely recognises the culture — and he feels as much at odds with it as he did with the regime he fled.

The impression remains that a great musical tradition has been perverted by a succession of extreme political ideologies, and is consequently in terminal decline. Political machinations, financial greed and power-hunger are everywhere, but when a British music teacher grumbles that she tries, at her institution, to "stay out of the politics", when a philanthropic musical organisation seems to feather its organiser's nest, or when one hears of a competition juror allegedly taking backhanders from his students to help them win prizes, why do the stories so often concern Russians? 

Last year, Richard Morrison published an article in BBC Music Magazine that was intensely critical of Valery Gergiev's closeness to certain Russian politicians and oligarchs. Could it be that the wrong boundaries are being pushed, the extensions built beyond the regulations until something has to give? That something is artistic integrity.

As Jurowski says, "I personally don't see how what we call the Russian School can survive in a world that is deeply uninterested in art creation. When art becomes just a means of earning good money I think this is the beginning of the end."
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October 21st, 2009
12:10 PM
Thanks for the article, very interesting indeed. I don't agree with Mr Jurowski though, Russian School will survive. Probably, the world is deeply uninterested in art creation, but classical music was never and will be a part of mass culture.

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