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Young Russians

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents, YOUNG RUSSIANS – Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House. 1st, 3rd and 4th March.

YOUNG RUSSIANS was a program of music from three of the greats of music of the last century. Music from the three greats, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich right at the beginning of their career. All three pieces are auguries of their coming contribution to world music.

Sergei Prokofiev wrote his CLASSICAL SYMPHONY. OP 25 (SYMPHONY No. 1 in D) in the summer of 1917, at the age of 26, right at the beginning of the Bolshevik Russian Revolution. This symphony was inspired by the study of the composer Haydn. There is nothing too slavish in imitation of the Haydn influence and it uniquely finds its own identity with a freshness of youthful and good humoured energy that virtually gambols delightfully over a very brief but exhilarating 15 minutes. It was composed in the country outside St Petersburg away from the disturbances of urban revolution. Its ‘sunniness’ belies the atmosphere of the world shaking incidents of the politics of his country. Within a year he had fled from Russia to the safety of the West.

At the age of 19 Sergei Rachmaninoff, in 1892, graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with the Great Gold Medal, with his graduation piece the PIANO CONCERTO NO 1 IN F SHARP MINOR, OP.1. It was a great success and quickly published. But Rachmaninoff was discontent with the work and winced at its appearance in the repertoire. So much so that he shut himself up in his flat in Moscow, having left the family country estate in the turmoil of the revolution in 1917, and re-examined his teenage concerto. It did not result, so the musical historians tell me, in much overhaul of the work’s musical language – although he made ‘thematic presentation, orchestration and the piano solo part more subtle and sophisticated. The piano contribution still demanding and virtuosic – tailor-made for a pianist of Rachmaninoff’s fearsomely complete technique and romantic disposition.’ Soon after this composition re-write, he and his family, like Prokofiev, had done, fled Russia.

This performance in the Concert Hall was played by 25 year old Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov – another YOUNG RUSSIAN. In The New Yorker, in a profile-review by Alex Ross, there was a distinction made ‘between furore and sensation’. Trifonov creates a furore. His playing of this Concerto on Friday night was driven by a demonic possession of the music with his whole body invested in the interpretation of the score with all of its pianistic technique and emotional intensity and subtleties. It was a thrilling performance. I looked at the piano and hoped it would survive – it did. Whether Mr Trifonov will do is another question – his passionate physicality is full-on. This performance seemed to augur a glorious future for this musician. He played, as encore, a small work of his own. Mr Trifonov, a pianist-composer, too! It was a gift to see and hear such a ‘furore’ as this YOUNG RUSSIAN, so early in his career – a night to remember in music going in Sydney.

In 1919 at the age of 13 Dmitri Shostakovich entered the St Petersburg Conservatory, although it was then Petrograd, and by the time he graduated, the city had again changed name and become Leningrad. This was in 1926 and his graduation work was the SYMPHONY NO 1 IN F MINOR, OP. 10. It was immediately a success and championed around the world. Shostakovich, this YOUNG RUSSIAN, became a world star in time meteoric. His early life money difficulties had him playing in silent cinemas as a pianist improviser. This may account for the dramatic narrative of his great scores – he also wrote music for the Russian Cinema (HAMLET – 1964; KING LEAR – 1971) – but also should underline the influence of film makers such as Charlie Chaplin, explaining, perhaps, the satirical and humorous nature of much of his music. This symphony is a relatively brief 28 minutes long but presages the dramatic/comic contrasts of all the modes of musical orchestration that he will employ in his maturity. Shostakovich never left Russia and lived and worked in the tremendously dark periods of Stalin, World War II and the Cold War age of history. His music reflects that struggle to be an expressive artist in a repressive regime. (I recommend the novel, THE NOISE OF TIME, by Julian Barnes for further insight into this great Composer’s life.)

I had never heard the No 1 Symphony live before. The conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, a Spanish artist, drew from the orchestra detail of orchestration with consummate ease and discipline. All three works were revealed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Gimeno, with great clarity and expressive generosity. This was a Concert that gave great pleasure.