The ‘Voices of Revolution’ project has been a landmark one for the Philharmonia orchestra 2017/2018 season at Southbank Centre. It started with a live screening of Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ in October 2017 and proceeded with concerts (accompanied with insights talks from the programme’s curator Martin Sixsmith) presenting the works of Kabalevsky, Rachmaninov, Glière, Mosolov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev to British audiences. The cycle has been an extraordinary experience, putting many important works of the Soviet 1920s and 1930s in the historical context. They have been selected by the curators and Philharmonia specifically to demonstrate important developments in the music of that period and relationships of the composers with the country leaders, the party and general social and political environment of that time.
The final instalment of the series was not an exception, and presented the output of Sergey Prokofiev in a combination of two works written before his emigration (cantata Seven, They are Seven and Violin Concerto No 1 in D minor) and one choral piece composed after his return (unperformed till 1966 and becoming famous in modern concert halls) – Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. The first work – a small cantata ‘Seven, They are Seven’ – was written by Prokofiev in 1917 in Kislovodsk and premiered in 1924 in Paris, conducted by Sergey Koussevitzky. Prokofiev seems to have missed witnessing the revolutionary events in person, but another trend of that time inspired him: interest in the history of ancient pre-Greek civilizations where many Russian philosophers, poets and thinkers tried to find responses for impending changes in the fate of their country. For the name of his cantata, Prokofiev chose Konstantin Balmont’s poem ‘Seven, They are Seven’ — an incantation translatd from Akkadian and discovered on the walls of a cave. Although the text seems, indeed, to be archaic, its relevance to the atmosphere of the revolution was instantly perceived when the audience heard this piece presented by the tenor David Butt Philip doing the solo declamation and singing, with Philharmonia Voices and the orchestra accompanying him. One forgets that the text is about some ancient ‘demon creatures, devils, Gods’ – who seem to be the revenging warriors of the impending revolution (gigantic figures resembling Alexander Block’s poem The Twelve). The soloist is joined by the choir in falling and rising, bursts and outcries, booms and chants of music. Its rapidly changing metres and the general sense of the catastrophe-to-happen fills the audience with almost physical sensations of a tribal, volcanic force impending towards them. Vladimir Ashkenazy was poignant and energetic, as always, in delivering the energy of this work to RFH audiences. A short, but very powerful piece that found its counterpart in the final part of the programme. Sandwiched in between them came the unusual, eerily lyrical Violin Concerto.
It was written by Prokofiev during the revolutionary year 1917 (premiered in Paris in 1923 under Koussevitzky, with Marcel Darrieux as soloist), but somehow it had the quality of being a quiet, intimate, ruminating, virginal and explorative piece evocative of the Russian landscape with its rivers, birches, changing weather. It has markings by the composer like sognando (dreamily) and narrante (narratively, as if telling a story), and, apart from the second movement (its tempo being vivacissimo) is almost expounding in lyricism and unusual, almost bare, orchestration where instruments (violas, harp, woodwinds) are always in dialogue with the solo violin.
Pekka Kuusisto, a long-time collaborator with the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy, was indeed a very eloquent interpreter of this piece. Kuussisto, with his own specific mannerisms and individual style, might have overemphasised the disjointed, individualised character of each concerto movement. The silences between each of them inaugurated the arrival of each new movement as if it were a piece standing almost on its own. In his performance the concerto sounded almost like a series of brooding variations on a theme, but the violinist thrillingly delivered some of its moments. Especially the second movement, with its pizzicato section and the finale, where the violin sometimes is launched on a journey of its own with the orchestra as its mightily supporter, was quite impressive. Kuusisto likes making small surprises, and, adding more showmanship to his previous extravagance, he performed an encore of Moscow Nights (‘Podmoskovnye Vechera’) that he also translated to Finnish while imitating a domra-style tremolo on his violin. Not being exactly on the theme of the evening, this encore reminded of connections between Russian and Finnish landscapes that may be effectively reflected in music coming from these countries.
The second part of the evening returned the listener back into the mood set by Seven, They were Seven by immersing the audiences in the grandeur of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. In writing his piece in 1936-37, Prokofiev had no longer the freedom of being far away from the revolutionary events of his country. Now this was clearly his attempt to show his compliance and acceptance of the new order of the Soviet Union — the country which he decided to return to after years spent abroad. He had done his best to present the winning force of the revolution by highlighting its main stages and the important events afterwards (hunger and Civil War years, death of Lenin, building of factories and collective farms), incorporating different Lenin speeches, as well as (obviously as a request from above) Stalin’s outline of a new 1936 Constitution. Cantata almost feels like one of those reconstructions of storming of the Winter Palace directed by Nikolay Evreinov in the 1920s.
Philharmonia’s usual orchestral forces were enhanced for this occasion by the military band of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and by the accordion ensemble (positioned between strings and woodwind sections) from the Royal Academy of Music. Philharmonia Voices also joined forces with the Crouch End Festival Chorus, while Philharmonia Voices’ director Aidan Oliver once stepped into the role of Lenin speaking to the audiences through a megaphone. The cantata indeed strove to reach the ultimate climax by making an impression on the listener through the choral masses singing, chanting and uniting in one giant effort of re-creating the sufferings and struggles of the Soviet peoples. Its texts were surtitled on the big screens in the hall. When presented in London, the performance was astounding in its sheer overwhelming mix of orchestral and vocal sounds, but also slightly exotic in its artificial Sovietness. It also struck as repetitive and almost anti-musical in a very un-Prokofiev manner. However contrived the composer’s effort in writing of this piece was, it was still a very historically enlightening piece whose performance was a perfect, immersive way to conclude the ‘Voices of Revolution’ series. Ashkenazy made many farewell greetings to members of the Philharmonia who had enthusiastically been on this wonderful journey with him. Undoubtedly, now London audiences (Russian-speaking and not) know more about the Soviet music of the 1920s and 1930s than they did in October 2017, and have learned how to place along the historical scale of the 20th century: no small achievement in the course of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution.