Russian Dreaming

Spent a wonderful afternoon at the Kings Place Festival on Friday listening to Mikhail Rudy playing two-and-a-quarter hours of startlingly amazing Russian music. For its festival, Kings Place put on 100 concerts in four days in all genres – Micha’s sets of 45 mins each were three of them – and quite apart from the delicious sneaky feeling that you’re bunking off school by going to concerts on a Friday afternoon, it was a treat of the best kind: a fabulous way to listen to great music-making. 

A few succinct points about both the playing and the event. First, the sensation that you’re listening to someone who’s lived with this music his whole life. This is organic interpretation, the piano as personal growth – not note-spinning, but the culmination of deep understanding through assimilating the music over decades. And not just any music: we’re talking Tchaikovsky The Seasons, Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (extract in the video above, a promotion for Andy Sommer’s film portrait of Micha), Prokofiev Cello Sonata, part of Romeo and Juliet and Visions Fugitives, Stravinsky Pulcinella/Suite Italienne and Micha’s own transcription of Petrushka. His cellist partner for Set 2 was the splendid Alexander Ivashkin.

With this wealth of assurance and colouristic imagination, there’s no need for an orchestral version of any of it. Micha drew colours out of that Steinway that just don’t exist anywhere else (to misquote Keats substantially, seen colours are great, but those unseen are greater).

Before capitalist corruption took over from the communist version of it, before money and self became everything to a damaged generation and while Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn were very much alive, a raft of Russian musicians grew up in persecuted, deprived circumstances and found salvation in their talent. That generation is now in its mid fifties and above; many defected from the USSR, some with more noise than others. Micha, who defected to France very publicly in 1977, is among them, one of the last representatives of true Russian School musicianship, characterised by an ideal combination of fidelity to the music mixed with an entirely individual sound. If you have a look at the video below, which was made last year to promote his last Kings Place bonanaza, you’ll hear him talking about the importance of improvisation, the vitality that’s essential to the dynamic and fully engaged interpretation of music.

On Friday, he brought us musical dreams of a Russia that maybe exists more in poetry, myth and fairy-tale than reality. Pictures, death-haunted, pace-painted, dazzling sound imagery culminating in a flight around old Kiev and its monastery bells (been there, heard them, that’s how they sound…). Tchaikovsky’s June Barcarolle – not punting up the Cam, this, but a slow journey along a river wide and deep, perhaps alongside a landscape in ruins. Petrushka: a fairground could have been hidden inside the piano. Prokofiev: a composer whose delicacy, fantasy and daring conjures spider webs and spun sugar out of sound. The Cello Sonata is one of the masterpieces of the repertoire, and Micha and the immensely characterful Sasha bounded through it almost without touching the ground, whirling the bouncing ideas off the walls and one another. Bow hair flew in the Stravinsky Pulcinella, almost as dazzling as Barbara Trapido’s bravura novel based on its commedia dell’arte origins, Sex and Stravinsky. Normally I can’t stand Pulcinella, as it happens, but I loved every minute of it. 

All this took place in the intimate surroundings of Kings Place’s state-of-the-art hall, which has to be the best piano acoustic in London: unlike the Wigmore (great for song and strings, but not so much for solo piano), it gives a big-boned Russian piano tone enough space to breathe and bloom. The audience was small, enthusiastic and knowledgeable; most had had to make extra efforts to take the afternoon out and be there. It’s a wonderful way to listen to great music-making at close quarters – just what I was writing about the other week…the one drawback being that with musicianship of such quality, you really want Micha to be playing to a sold-out Royal Festival Hall instead. 

Micha’s next project requires a trip to Paris: he is to perform Pictures at an Exhibition with the projection of Kandinsky’s Esquisses – the visuals that the artist devised especially for the work and for which he left minutely-detailed instructions. The performance is at the Cite de la Musique on 30 November. I hope to go.

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