A New Year for Russian Modernism

Yefim Bronfman at Tanglewood, after his performance of Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" on July 3, 2009.

Photo: Courtesy of Jeromewakelin.

Clouds of doom hang over U.S.-Russian relations at what many commentators believe to be their lowest point since the depths of the Cold War. But one would never know it from this lavish program of Russian modernist works performed by the Palm Beach Symphony, easily one of the boldest and most innovative orchestras playing today. As Florida’s star rises because of a combination of prudent pandemic policies and favorable financial and quality-of-life advantages, its arts institutions are also experiencing a massive boost. The Palm Beach Symphony now live-streams its concerts internationally. Its televised Christmas concert reached 1.2 million viewers.

The evening, billed as “Romantic Rachmaninoff,” opened with a somber, introspective playing of Anatol Liadov’s short tone poem Kikimora. Composed in 1909, the piece reflects late imperial Russia’s cultural preoccupation with early Slavic myths. As in other countries at the time, interest in myth offered a firm and reassuring concept of nationhood in a world where international competition—which eventually spiraled into the unprecedented destruction of World War I—was becoming a ferocious fact of life. In Russia, high culture maintained a fraught relationship with the West, simultaneously benefitting from and burdened by a powerful legacy of Western European influences. In this climate, artists who chose to root new works in the national idiom inspired near-fanatical devotion. And this was only one reason to mine Russia’s past for inspiration; another was the way some cultural critics framed artistic departure from Russia’s oldest traditions was nearly an act of treason. As a result, Liadov was only one of many artists who found inspiration in the panoply of motifs, legends, and tales of ancient Russia.

Kikimora is an evil sprite who spins flaxen thread each night with what Liadov described as “evil intentions for the world.” He bears similarities to the Germanic Norns, the weavers of the threads of fate in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. But while Norns merely record events as time passes, Kikimora directs his ill will towards the future, and therefore he resonated more closely with the apocalyptic currents that coursed through Russia’s symbolist age.

Opening with a solo horn—the same instrument that dooms Siegfried in Wagner’s tetralogy—Kikimora moves into a frenzy of percussive harm. Maestro Gerard Schwarz, longtime director of the Seattle Symphony and the Mostly Mozart Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center, led with a firm grasp of the piece’s emotional energy from the haunting opening notes to the chaotic conclusion.

In same year that Liadov composed Kikimora, Sergei Rachmaninoff first performed his notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3. Written on commission in the summer of 1908 for a prospective American tour, Rachmaninoff himself playing the piano during the premier before a New York audience. The concerto is a masterpiece demanding the highest degree of virtuosity, and Rachmaninoff did not feel the premiere received quite the critical acclaim he felt it deserved. History bore out his opinion over that of the tepid critics and his polite but far from effusive first night audience. For professional pianists, a successful performance of “Rach 3” is a kind of holy grail. The 1996 film Shine was devoted to one such quest, following pianist David Helfgott in his merciless quest for the perfection required by the concerto. When Vladimir Horowitz produced the first full-length recording of it in 1930, Rachmaninoff was so impressed that he resolved never to perform it again.

In this concert, the world-famous pianist Yefim Bronfman delivered the finest performance of the concerto I have ever heard outside of Russia. Bronfman is touring the world this season as Artist-in-Residence at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw orchestra. During the Palm Beach performance, Maestro Schwarz gave Bronfman ample space to demonstrate his mastery of the work’s dense textures and vaulting cadenzas with the surety of excellent orchestral support. Bronfman played with crystalline perfection but resisted any temptation to show off with a flashy or insouciant reading.

Part of the challenge of the concerto to convey with equal credibility the first, “Allegro,” movement’s European harmonies and the third movement’s crisper martial tones, and to bridging these two divergent movements with the Slavic inspirations of an adagio movement billed as an “intermezzo.” It is very much a balancing act between the “East/West” dichotomy that Russia itself faced in the troubled first decades of the twentieth century.Can it be any surprise that Rachmaninoff himself emigrated almost immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and died a U.S. citizen in California, leaving instructions that his remains should never be repatriated to Russia?

Bronfman rose to the challenge of the concerto, neither eschewing the difficulties of the piece nor manufacturing discord. His encore performance, of the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata,” allowed for another welcome demonstration of virtuosity. Interested readers should know that, in what is billed as “the return of one of the greatest pianists of our time” spanning from Beethoven’s Appassionata and Chopin’s Third Sonata, Yefim Bronfman will perform a piano recital at the Teatro Auditorium Manzoni in Bologna on February 28, 2022.

The concert’s final selection brought the East/West dichotomy to a breaking point. A generation younger than Rachmaninoff, Dmitri Shostakovich was a child at the time of the revolution and remained in the Soviet Union, where his creative gifts were by turns praised and castigated. As Joseph Stalin solidified his murderous rule, Shostakovich’s second and last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, risked a searing and highly sexualized portrayal of Russian provincial life that grated against the sensibilities of the new proletarian dictatorship. Its denunciation by the Soviet arts establishment, including by Stalin himself, caused the composer to fear for his life as millions of his fellow citizens were repressed for far lesser infractions, or for no reason at all. He withdrew his Symphony No. 4 from performance and withheld another work, lest he find himself accused of being a repeat offender.

Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 5 through the fraught year of 1937, with the specter of arrest constantly on his mind. Upon its premiere that November, it scored an unexpected triumph with both establishment critics and popular audiences. In a Soviet context, its four sturdy movements suggested the formation of a new personality through adversity—a major cultural goal of the Bolshevik Revolution. Still harried by the arts establishment, Shostakovich was hardly in a position to disagree, and his intentions have been the subject of dispute ever since. Many critics have suspected that the symphony’s themes of “rebirth” were meant sarcastically in defiance of the communist regime, or even as a gesture of reconciliation with it.

We may never know, but the emotion that suffuses Shostakovich’s work is undeniably its greatest challenge. Once again, Maestro Schwarz rose to the task with the help of his strong brass and woodwinds and delivered a stellar performance, closing this triumphant evening with a balanced presentation of this relentless piece that teeters forever on the brink between wild hope and despair—much like Russia herself.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.


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