Book review: The whiplash effect

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Yevgeny Mravinsky: The Noble Conductor
by Gregor Tassie
Scarecrow Press, £39.00, $59.95

Václav Talich: Confidence and Humility
Supraphon, £16.99, $19.50

No one who saw Yevgeny Mravinsky in performance will forget it. Tall, gaunt and imposing, he conducted with minimal gesture and no facial expression. You couldn’t mistake the climate of fear with which he ruled the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Nor could you deny the whiplash effect he created in fast music. He was simultaneously a martinet and a titan. It wasn’t the hire-and-fire dictatorship
we associate with George Szell and Fritz Reiner at the height of their US careers. It was authoritarianism by collusion, a partnership of supreme musical discipline that grew out of shared experience of Stalinism.

Mravinsky, who died in 1988, crops up in any discussion of Shostakovich’s music – especially this year, the composer’s centenary. He conducted the premiere of five of the symphonies, and from 1937 to Shostakovich’s death in 1975 was his most trusted interpreter. All this is recalled in a flawed but fascinating new biography, which fleshes out our knowledge of one of the most mysterious icons of 20th-century music.

I saw Mravinsky on two occasions – both on his penultimate tour to the west in 1982. In Zurich the brutal impact of his performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony left an indelible impression: I was so numbed at the end that I didn’t join in the applause. In Lyon a few days later the tension was lower, but the breakneck speed with which Mravinsky – a few months short of his 80th birthday – dispatched the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was a feat in itself.

I decided to go backstage. In the green room I found a frail, vulnerable old man – the opposite of how he had appeared on the podium. He was surrounded by KGB minders and refused to speak German, even though he was a fluent linguist. It was a revealing encounter. For more than three decades Mravinsky had honed his orchestra to a point where, even though he was unable to function with the energy and authority of his prime, the musicians remained the instrument of his will.

That experience is echoed in the last chapter of Gregor Tassie’s book, recounting the Leningrad Philharmonic’s visit to Moscow later in 1982. During the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony the lights went out “but we just continued playing”, one of the musicians is quoted as saying. “We knew the music inside out, we knew [Mravinsky’s] reading.” You can sense that symbiotic relationship on his compact discs – especially the live recording of Shostakovich’s Eighth that was made in London in 1960, four years after conductor and orchestra made their sensational western debut.

Tassie, a British Russophile, shows there was more to Mravinsky than the stiff and stern public figure. An aristocrat who was versed in European culture from childhood, Mravinsky was the least likely of Soviet authority-figures. He began as a mime artist at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1918, just after the Red Guards had evicted his family from their home. He graduated from the Petersburg Conservatoire by conducting Carmen, spent most of his early career as a ballet répétiteur and didn’t make his concert debut till he was 26. Eight years later he conducted the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth – gateway to his 40-year reign over the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Mravinsky’s claim on the post lay in his championing of Russian composers, a surprisingly rare quality in 1930s Leningrad – and yet he later developed into a warm advocate of Bruckner, Brahms and Mozart. What cemented his relationship with the orchestra was not their early successes with Shostakovich but the shared experience of wartime exile in Siberia. Isolated from the political storm but with ample opportunity to rehearse and perform, Mravinsky and his musicians laid the foundations of repertoire and ensemble that were to make their partnership legendary.

Tassie’s biography reveals that Mravinsky had a domineering mother and went through four wives, none of whom could compete with his first love, the orchestra. He never guest-conducted abroad and was socially reclusive, preferring to study flora and fauna or re-examine scores in the seclusion of his dacha. What the book crucially lacks is some insight into what made Mravinsky tick. It is further weakened by poor editing and an over-reliance on Party-style reportage. The conductor’s diary, to which Tassie had access, reveals little about music, politics, family or private preoccupations – beyond the fact that Shostakovich adopted some of his suggestions on tempo and dynamics.

But there’s a nice little anecdote about the occasion when Herbert von Karajan, visiting Leningrad in the 1970s, asked Mravinsky to comment on his performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. Mravinsky replied that he was impressed but “thought the maestro must have listened to my own recording”. Karajan was not accustomed to that sort of put-down.

We get a more intimate flavour of a great conductor’s life from a film portrait of Václav Talich (1883-1961), father of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and a musician as central to Dvorák and Janácek interpretation as Mravinsky was to Shostakovich. Supraphon’s well-documented DVD includes rare footage from the 1920s and the 1930s, plus a 1955 studio performance of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances. It also takes us to the heart of a man who had an explosive temper and an angelic smile – the same man who had a nervous breakdown in 1935 and was crushed by the communists in the late 1940s. As the commentary suggests, “Talich put the stamp of his personality on the music without disturbing its soul.”

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