Russians Hit a Wrong Note

Soviet musicians had no freedom but great prestige. Now the danger is corruption and greed

Jessica Duchen

Enduring the Mariinsky Theatre’s rendition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House this summer, I couldn’t help recalling a party I once attended at the home of a Russian in London. The owner had built a magnificent extension. “The council tells me height limit,” he said. “Then I build six inches higher!”

The Mariinsky Ring felt like a building constructed so far beyond the rules that it topples over. Performing the immense cycle on consecutive days, the company, even the usually tireless conductor Valery Gergiev, audibly struggled. The production was dire and audience members who had forked out a small fortune were loath to admit they were being short-changed. 

It was a far cry from the glory days of what used to be called the “Russian School” — the legendary musicians of the early- to mid-20th century: Sergei Rachmaninov, Fyodor Chaliapin, Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich. In compositional terms, it goes back as far as the nationalistic style of Glinka, Dargomizhky and the “Mighty Five” (Mili Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin). In the USSR, gifted youngsters were nurtured with free musical education that was the best in the world — even if they would later be manipulated for propaganda purposes by Stalin and his minions. But in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the changes to this revered culture have not always been positive. As one musician who had known Shostakovich remarks: “Today it’s all about money.”

The pianist Mikhail Rudy, now 55, left Russia for France in 1977 in a headline-hitting defection. Of the “Russian School”, he tells me, “Great classical musicians in the Soviet Union were artistically and morally very important people. We went to concerts as if attending church. You wouldn’t just go to hear a virtuoso: we wanted much more.” With religion banned, music filled a spiritual void and artistic levels were expected to be appropriately stratospheric. 

“The great Russian musicians had two things in common,” Rudy continues, “a high level of technique and a very distinct personality. You can’t find more different personalities than Gilels, Sofronitzky, Richter, Oistrakh. The expectation of such extreme character in soloists has faded with the changes in society: now Russian players have become more like other musicians. And a concert has become simply a performance, like visiting a museum.”

Vladimir Jurowski, 37, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was born into a family of Russian musicians. They moved to Berlin when he was 18 but he has been profoundly influenced by Soviet artistic traditions. The emphasis of music-making in Russia today, he says, has shifted “from creation to production” — from art as “a matter of life and death”, to a commodity mass-produced, piled high and sold expensively. But Jurowski adds that the collapse of communism “was the result of this general shift in society. It did not cause it.” He also suggests, “Unfortunately in the West, there is a lack of serious judgment, which leads to the thoughtless consumption of anything supposedly ‘important’ from Russia, without any criticism.” 

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.”

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"