Book Reviews 55

Remembering Mravinsky…

Remembering Mravinsky…
“Вспоминая Мравинского…”

(compiled by Genrietta Serova)
Limbus Press, 2019
Hardback, 400 pages
ISBN 978-5-8392-0707-3

To mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Yevgeny Mravinsky, considered the leading conductor in Leningrad, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society has published a volume of memoirs about him, compiled by Genrietta Serova, professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Mravinsky spent 50 years working exclusively with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, the oldest symphony orchestra in Russia, which became his “ideal” instrument.

There are still discussions about Mravinsky’s personality and rehearsal methods and his ascetic repertoire, but his conducting skills are never in doubt. This was most emphatically confirmed by another Leningrad resident and contemporary of Mravinsky’s, who wrote to him on the eve of the new year, 1947: “Every composer cherishes his performers … Today I will drink to your health, Yevgeny Alexandrovich.” The correspondent was Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich who, beginning with the Fifth, entrusted to Mravinsky the premieres of six symphonies (the Eighth was dedicated to him), as well as the first violin and cello concerti and The Song of the Forests. Mravinsky also conducted the premieres of other contemporary composers, in particular Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, but he went down in music history as a companion to Shostakovich and one of his main interpreters and propagandists. The half-century that Mravinsky spent with his orchestra, he also spent with Shostakovich’s music.

Remembering Mravinsky… is a large human document that compiles hundreds of pages of memoirs by forty or so of Mravinsky’s contemporaries, most of whom knew him personally. These include musicians and musicologists, conductors who were Mravinsky’s assistants in their youth, and such famous contemporaries as Heinrich Neuhaus and Boris Khaikin, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Boris Tishchenko.

It seems incredible, but for all of these people some quality of Mravinsky’s—as a human being or a conductor—proved exceptional, and friendship, communication with him or simply attending concerts of the “Mravinsky Orchestra” were among the most important experiences in life.

For example, the composer Sergei Slonimsky recalls hearing from Mravinsky how Shostakovich and Prokofiev were jealous of ‘their maestro’: “… when discussing the Eighth Symphony, Prokofiev bluntly assessed its themes as suitable only for the score’s auxiliary ‘secondary voices’ and advised him to remove second and fourth movements altogether … For his part, Dmitri Dmitrievich, seeing the bare, dotted rhythms in the basses in Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony finale, could not resist muttering: “What a fool!”

Maxim Shostakovich, in turn, “blames” Mravinsky for his choice of profession: “My father first took me to a rehearsal of his Eighth Symphony in 1946. Mravinsky’s appearance, his demeanour, the way he created music by extracting it from the score—it all made such an indelible impression on me that, apparently, I immediately decided to become a conductor. I was eight years old at the time.”

Such admiration for Mravinsky permeates the entire book, the atmosphere of which is most of all reminiscent of a very warm and touching memorial evening. So it may come as a surprise, that it is in the predominance of this atmosphere that the book’s main drawback lies.

All the assessments of Mravinsky’s work and personality are unequivocally positive. Even his harsher actions, whether it be his refusal to conduct the premiere of Tishchenko’s First Cello Concerto or his criticism of a Philharmonic employee’s new hair colour (!) are perceived as edifying and always fair. Given that these are the “victims”’ own evaluations, this may seem acceptable but it does seem a little unnatural to me.

More alarming is the question raised in the book about Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony. As is well known Shostakovich had hoped that Mravinsky would conduct the premiere but after his refusal, Kondrashin took his place. In Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich. A Life Remembered, musicologist Mikhail Bialik recalls the composer Isaac Schwartz, placing the responsibility largely on the fragile shoulders of Mravinsky’s wife, Inna Serikova: “She offered him a strong argument for rejection: Mravinsky never conducted choral works.” Here Bialik interjects, immediately refuting this assertion: among other things, Mravinsky performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his Mass, Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, and in 1949 premiered Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests.

“‘You must only conduct pure music’ … This was her reasoning, which led to his decision not to perform the Thirteenth Symphony … Yevgeny Alexandrovich was … a man of his time, he was alarmed by Shostakovich’s settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s verses. Inna’s opinion also played an important role. She sensed in the Thirteenth Symphony, in Yevtushenko’s poems, just what could have damaged her beloved’s career.” Bialik himself continues: “I don’t rule out the possibility that the Party department in which Inna served could simply have ordered her to prevent Mravinsky from performing of the ‘revolting’ opus.”

All these arguments are extremely politicised, and somehow sidestep the simple idea that some aspects of the Thirteenth Symphony, be they the music, the poetry or the work’s dramatic flow, conflicted with Mravinsky’s worldview, or were not close or comprehensible to him. Even in the 1980s, when the political situation had changed, Mravinsky did not perform the Thirteenth Symphony, although he enthusiastically embraced the Fifteenth and continued to programme the other Shostakovich symphonies in his repertoire. And so this question, not answered in a book that might have provided it, is dissipated among the many pages of touching recollections of the great composer and the conductor’s creative alliance, letters between them and articles by Mravinsky about Shostakovich.

Well, it’s always difficult to admit that a person is “woven of contradictions.” Especially when that person is elevated above others by virtue of his mastery or influence. But should we really expect objectivity from the genre of memoirs?

Be that as it may, Remembering Mravinsky… is of immense value. Disarming in its volume of information and lack of historical coldness, the book describes in detail the “sunny side” of Mravinsky, at the same time outlining vivid and numerous details of Soviet reality.

The book comprises five sections:
1. Memoirs, written specially for the collection;
2. Interviews, recorded by G.N.Envald;
3. Materials and memoirs previously published in various collections and periodicals;
4. Materials and documents for the biography of Mravinsky;
5. Articles by Mravinsky and excerpts from interviews, published in various collections, newspapers and magazines.

1. Serova is the wife of the conductor Eduard Serov, one of Mravinsky’s first pupils and later “a close friend” of the maestro. It was he who came up with the idea for Remembering Mravinsky…

Vladislava Shilina