Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 31

Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde

24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87


Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde: TT 39:53

Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde:
TT 50:23

TT 51:53

Copernicus Films
3 DVDs, available in PAL or NTSC versions

Copernicus Films, run by Michael Craig, an Englishman living in Moscow, is producing a series of documentaries about Soviet culture, including ones on Meyerhold, Mayakovsky and Rodchenko.

With Meyerhold, we enter in media res – he was born in 1874 but, after some brief comments about turn-of-the-century Russian theatre, the film starts with Vladimir Mayakovsky: a Tragedy (1912). Then we’re off on a theoretical rollercoaster, from symbolism, through biomechanics to the relationship between audience and players. But there some huge assumptions of knowledge: Perekop is suddenly mentioned, though we haven’t even heard about the Civil War. Against that, biomechanics is clearly explained with photographs and silhouette recreations.

A long section on The Government Inspector (1926) explains how Soviet cinema theory inspired Meyerhold. The film points to Pudovkin: “The principal of a contrasting edit was applied where the action spills across the entire width of the stage.” On stage contrasting vignettes appear simultaneously in different areas (the tracking shot across the crammed stage is reminiscent of the backcloth of the Moscow Chamber Opera production of The Nose) whereas cinema presents the scenes one after another. Pudovkin’s “contrasting editing[1]” was a variation on the “montage of attractions”, in which apparently arbitrary colliding images jolt the viewer, an idea developed by Meyerhold’s pupil Eisenstein[2]. He was also involved in Proletkult’s circus-ish staging of Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man (1923), so it’s strange that Glumov’s Diary, the little film insert, isn’t used.

The film ends with Meyerhold’s ambitious – and doomed – plan for a new theatre before ending with a slightly throwaway (and unsupported) comment about his influence on later theatre practitioners. While it’s not a biography as such, completely ignoring his and Raikh’s tragic fates is, ironically, an almost Soviet whitewashing of history.

Mayakovsky is a more traditional birth-to-death critical biography, beginning with his impoverished childhood, conventionally revolutionary adolescence and imprisonment where he was able to read widely. We then progress through his tragic love-life and political art leading to increasing isolation and suicide.

But the script is slightly confusing. Esenin is mentioned but we only learn more about his relationship with Mayakovsky some time later. There are also a few misjudged moments: to say that the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries “had enormous effects on the country’s spiritual and cultural life” is almost comically bathetic, while yoking the words ‘Lenin’ and ‘democratic decisions’ in the same sentence might raise a few eyebrows. Similarly, contemporary criticism of Mystery-Bouffe as a call to terror is brushed aside as “a historical rather than a literary question.”

But while Mayakovsky’s constructivism and its unusual points of view are described, the film continues in a relentlessly conventional fashion, panning over and zooming into photographs. The autumnal streets neither complement nor counterpoint Listen, while his reading from An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky at a Dacha is accompanied by what looks like a clip from an old Soviet documentary (complete with one of their favourite techniques, the magically appearing animated handwriting). But sometimes it can work – a section of VI Lenin is backed by predictably and appropriately reverential images, though the translated subtitles appear a line at a time, giving no idea of the verse’s strange layout on the page.

Finally, in Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde, a lookalike sits working at his desk as the narrator explains his move from non-objective painting through collage and photo-montage to photography. There’s a recreation of Rodchenko at work but the rough and random ruler lines that the lookalike throws down make a mockery of his carefully weighted spaces.

But the theoretical explanations are sometimes explained in overly complicated terms: “In Soviet photography of the 1920s it is understood that “perspectives” [a term coined by Rodchenko] was connected with a certain conception, namely the point of view from the top downwards. And from below upwards.”

And though there are some of his photographs of the building of the White Sea Canal, the context isn’t explained and there is nothing about Rodchenko’s involvement with this shocking project: they are merely artworks. Similarly there is nothing about his later baleful and desolate defacing of his own book Ten Years of Uzbekistan.

The films are professionally put together, with music from Mosolov, Roslavets, Shostakovich, Schnittke and others, photographs and (often familiar) clips from newsreels and films like October, Kino-Glaz and Three Songs of Lenin. Many clips come from The Man with a Movie Camera and Rodchenko’s ‘objective eye’ is compared to that of the director, though the narrator gives his name as Ziggy Vertov.

But there are deeper problems with the narration. Initially they feel like they have been over-edited from longer, essay-like texts: things go unexplained or explanations are long-delayed. But crucially, while the artistic theories are covered, the social and historical setting is much sketchier and the art’s repercussions on its own creators is often overlooked.

There’s a feeling of detachment – that the art existed only for itself. And even worse, they give little idea of what the art was actually like, of its eye-and-ear-popping new visions. There is no sense of Mayakovsky’s craggy energy or of Meyerhold’s riotous spectacles. Admittedly, modern Moscow is sometimes filmed in a Rodchenko-ish way – even, sometimes, returning to the sites to recreate his work, but too often the conventional camerawork and editing, use of music (however ‘appropriate’) and narrative fails to capture the structural innovations and sheer excitement of the new art.

Nevertheless, devotees of Russian and Soviet art and undergraduates may find them useful.

[1] V.I. Pudovkin (trans. and ed. Ivor Montagu) Film Technique and Film Acting (Memorial Edition), New York, Grove Press, 1960, pp.75-6
[2] S.M. Eisenstein The Montage of Attractions (Montazh attraktionov) in Lef, 3 (June/July) 1923, pp.70-1, 74-5. Translation in Eisenstein: Writings 1922-34, (ed. and trans. Richard Taylor), BFI 1988, pp. 33-8. Eisenstein wrote several essays about the montage of attractions around this time though, as his cinema career had hardly started, so they relate primarily to theatre.

John Riley

31_Nikolayeva /

24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87
Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano
Medici Arts DVD 3085248. Colour. TT: 150 min + interview 14 min
Videotaped performance originally broadcast 21–30 December 1992
Bonus feature: Tatiana Nikolayeva interview (Russian with English subtitles)

This DVD from Medici Arts captures the visual and aural magic of a unique musical synergy: Tatiana Nikolayeva performing the work that defined her career, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. To some, Shostakovich’s magnum opus for solo piano has never been better served. In 1952, the 28-year-old virtuoso became its first interpreter, and its most enduring, championing the work for the duration of her four-decade career. The relationship between a musical masterpiece and its performer has never been more profound.

Obtaining a complete performance on film was an opportunity that was nearly missed. Nikolayeva’s untimely death, at age 69, took place but a few months after these December 1992 studio sessions. The setting for this 2½-hour recital, filmed over a period of 10 days, is suitably unassuming. Nikolayeva is seated in front of a grand piano spotlit in a large, sparsely decorated studio engulfed in darkness. We see revealing close-ups of her face, her fingers, her body’s demonstrative gestures as she performs. The camera trolleys around her admiringly, sometimes with glimpses of one or more live studio monitors in the background. We bear witness, in this very tastefully directed production, to every movement of Ms Nikolayeva’s husky frame, and we marvel at the miraculous inner resources being summoned.

Nikolayeva’s recordings of the Shostakovich are hailed for their unassailable authority, the standard bearers for all other pianists. She also holds the distinction of being the only pianist to have recorded the complete opus 87 more than once – this release marking the fourth and last. The detailed comparison of the four performances to one another offers a feast for the enterprising scholar. This review will take but a few humble bites into this vast and fertile banquet.

Nikolayeva’s commercially released versions date from 1962, 1987, 1990, and 1992. The recording premiere of the complete opus 87 took place in Moscow in 1962 and was released on a 4-LP Melodiya set (CM 02377-84). It captures Nikolayeva in her prime: exuberant, technically assured, offering a compelling and often faster interpretation compared to her subsequent recorded versions. Some regard this as Ms Nikolayeva’s finest rendition. The somewhat less than ideal monophonic sound perhaps explains why it has never been re-released but for a limited Japanese CD issue in the 1990s. It is difficult to think of a more important Soviet-era recording that has not yet been brought into general circulation. It remained the only available recording of the complete set during the composer’s lifetime, followed, at last, by Roger Woodward’s 1975 LP version.

A quarter of a century separates Nikolayeva’s first recording of the opus 87 from her next. As she later regarded her 1962 version as ‘outdated in some respects’, it would have been of considerable interest to learn how her approach to the work evolved during the intervening decades. The second, 1987 version (BMG 74321 19849-2, reviewed in DSCH No. 23) is generally regarded as the favoured one, offering an optimal combination of sound and performance quality, with tempo choices that tend to run a bit more broadly than in the other three editions. The strongest contrast of interpretations lies between these first two editions, as if the latter version is in some way a repudiation of the earlier one.

The Hyperion CD set that appeared in 1990 (CDA 66441-3) is sometimes rather unfairly dismissed as the weakest. That opinion seems to arise from the slightly over-reverberant acoustic in London’s Henry Wood Hall where they were recorded, a feature that at times blurs some of the finer details (pianist Raymond Clarke offers a fascinating perspective on this edition that readers can find in DSCH No. 11). It should be pointed out that this edition contains some of Nikolayeva’s most beautifully conceived interpretations. Also the acoustic setting in some instances favourably compensates for the rather dry acoustic found in the 1987 studio recording.

Then we have the 1992 version, presented on this DVD. Devotees will be heartened by the superb production values, both aurally and visually. The headroom in this recording strikes a happy compromise between the contrasting acoustic attributes of the 1987 and 1990 editions: clarity and ambiance are found in pleasing equilibrium.

Upon comparing the four versions I discovered a number of astonishing differences. Not unexpectedly, in 1992, Nikolayeva performs with the same authority as we find in her previous renditions. One arguably finds more rubato-inflected nuances in this version. Her nimblest fingers may be found in 1962, where the quick-moving parallel octaves in the left hand – for example, in Preludes Nos. 3 and 15, as well in the complex Fugue No. 15, the thorniest of them all – find their clearest articulation. The poetry of her phrasing in every edition always yields to the logic of the music. Her solid weight-bearing touch, a prominent hallmark of her interpretations, is visually embodied in the DVD by her ample babushka-like physical frame and thick but nimble digits.

Nikolayeva’s performances are also identified by their grounded, no-nonsense tempi, which never veer to the extremes. Her fastest tempi are by and large found in 1962, with 15 movements bearing the shortest timings of the four versions. Almost as a renunciation of this early survey, we find the slowest tempi in 1987, where nine of the entries clock in with the longest comparative duration. The 1992 version tends toward the compact, with seven of the entries measuring the shortest, all but one of which occur in the latter half of the cycle.

The statistics tell only part of the story. Nikolayeva’s interpretations were not at all cast in stone; as one might expect from an artist with so intimate a relationship with this music, they were subject to constant revision within a consistent interpretive framework. It is thus difficult to pick any single edition as standing out among the others, as each seems to bring something unique to the music.

The differences between the versions are already evident in Prelude and Fugue No. 4. In 1962, the Fugue builds with fervent abandon after the piu mosso marking. In 1992, the dynamic levels are escalated in a more controlled manner, yielding an interpretation of muscular nobility that sacrifices spontaneity for solidity. Both versions are outdone, however, by the glorious, majestic peaks and beautifully turned phrases of 1987.

Fugue No. 6 is one of a handful of entries in which the tempi in the 1992 version (timing at 6:16) fall in between the extremes of 1962 (5:51) and 1987 (7:29). The contrast between the jaunty marcato of 1962 and the self-consciously paced musings of 1987 again suggest something of a repudiation of the earlier version, or at the least a complete rethinking of the piece. However, in 1992 Nikolayeva re-examines the music with a maturity that only experience can bring. The trochaic rhythms of the Prelude unfold in somewhat halting but grandly valedictorian tones; the intermediate pacing and restrained dynamics of the Fugue yield a transcendent fluency.

In Nikolayeva’s 1962 reading of Fugue No. 8, timing at 6:38, the obsessively returning main theme gets plenty of prodding forward as she yearns to overcome the dogged weariness of its rising and falling tones. It is quite an inspirational reading. The 1987 version delivers a much more internalised affair and yields mixed results. At more than two minutes longer (8:51), the pace is considerably broader, and each statement of the motif is broodingly examined. Here Nikolayeva is less preoccupied with building tension – again, perhaps as a renunciation of her previous interpretation – than with probing the tonal implications of each moment. A far more effective and masterfully shaped reading is found in 1990, timing at an intermediate 7:30. Here the music flows much more naturally and expressively while fully embracing the larger framework of the piece. The 1992 version brings us to strikingly different terrain. The timing of the fugue almost exactly matches that of the 1962 version. Yet here (competing against some faint but persistent studio rustling) the rays of light that once infused the 1962 version have all but vanished. Rather we find a mood of mournful, world-weary despondency that at times leads to startling moments of dark revelation and resignation unheard in previous versions. With these four performances, Nikolayeva has come full circle in examining the expressive possibilities of this remarkable fugue.

Henry Wood Hall provides an ideal ambiance for the devotional ruminations in 1990 of Fugue No. 10, which comes off in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner in 1992. None of the other versions matches the exquisite shaping we find in 1987, where each statement of the fugue subject is lovingly caressed in ever-shifting nuances.

Nikolayeva’s hefty grip on the keys, particularly evident in the 1992 recording, accords the light-hearted Prelude and Fugue No. 11 a greater weight than one finds in interpretations by other pianists.

In 1992 Nikolayeva plumbs the granitic depths of Prelude No. 12. The tender theme that emerges does so with exceptional power. She is somewhat less convincing in negotiating the jagged turns in the densely contrapuntal Fugue. The greater technical security of the 1987 rendition yields a splendidly coherent realization, but even this is outdone by the broad benediction and majestic sweep she brings to this music in 1990.

The varied complexions of Prelude and Fugue No. 14 provide Nikolayeva with a wide range of possibilities. In 1962 and 1990, the Prelude’s main theme rises with a smoky passion that invokes the mystical fervour inherent in the accompaniment of sustained tremolos. The weightier tone of the latter leads to a climax of hypnotic hammer strokes. The Fugue that follows in each of these versions is light, airy, and insouciantly dismissive of the spellbinding mood of its companion. The dichotomy is less extreme in the more measured phrasing of 1987, where Prelude and Fugue are joined by a more steadily paced yearning quality. In 1992 we find a more complete and rather darker synthesis of emotions: a sense of pain and resignation haunts the Prelude followed by a bittersweet if reluctant surrender to the Fugue’s flowery prancing.

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 is one of those entries that categorically defines the Nikolayeva style. Notable is the fastening down of each note of this leviathan in Db in a set of readings that are staunch and earnest to the end. The moments of delicacy that other pianists find in the whimsical counter-theme in the Prelude contrast with Nikolayeva’s firm touch. In the monstrously packed Fugue, nothing beats the nimble ferocity and technical fluency of 1962, yet the chiselled versions of both 1987 and 1992 make larger-than-life impressions with their combination of scrupulous detail and teetering momentum. At the same time, the emotional arc of the piece and the helter-skelter logic of its densely competing voices are quite grandly realised in 1990.

Fugue No. 19 receives a focused if rather straightforward reading in 1987 and 1992. But the tides of feverishly accumulating tension reach their most stirring levels in 1990.

Both the Prelude and the Fugue of No. 20 are tied together by a common theme that bears a connection with Russian liturgical music. The mood is reverential throughout. The Fugue gives rise to a wide range of timings. The gentle manner of 1962 (6:22) is replaced by a more internalised reading of 1987 (7:01), and contrasts again with the tone of confident affirmation in 1992 (5:21). The 1990 version (6:26) offers superior weight and substance. Here, the music’s ecclesiastical associations are well suited to the 1990 roomy acoustics.
Nikolayeva approaches Prelude and Fugue No. 21 with rather too much caution in 1992. A better measure of the music’s high spirits is found in the more spontaneous 1990 version, and, most rapturously, in the mercurial abandon of 1962.

The twenty-fourth and last of the set is a behemoth, a summing up of nearly symphonic proportions. Nikolayeva’s 1992 tempo in the mighty D-minor fugue (timing at 7:54) is a bit faster than her 1962 survey (8:18), in contrast to the broader tempi of her 1987 version (9:01). The three again make fascinating points of comparison. In the 1962 version Nikolayeva builds ecstatically toward the final peroration with a monolithic surge of energy and tempo starting at the accelerando marking. She proceeds in the same manner in the 1987 version with broader tempi, but rather less effectively, as the peak dynamic levels are adopted too soon, thus compromising the sense of accumulation. It is the 1992 rendition that achieves the most stirring results. Here she makes more strategic use of rubato and more varied dynamic contours in manoeuvring through these climactic pages, to remarkable effect.

It is a most fitting conclusion to the cycle and to Nikolayeva’s recording career with the opus 87.

The programme on the DVD also includes a 14-minute documentary that features Ms Nikolayeva, in interview, relating her impressions of Shostakovich, whose lifelong friendship she deeply valued. Snippets of this all too short interview are interspersed with clips of her performing the opus 87 taken from the DVD’s main feature, and with black and white file footage, in similarly brief cuts, of Shostakovich at the 1951 Leipzig Bach Festival, at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1949, and participating in a Gorky performance (presumably in 1964) of his Piano Quintet.

Inserted in the DVD casing is a small leaflet that lists the timings of each of the combined Prelude and Fugues. It should be noted that these timings are deceptive as to performance, since they include the 8 or 9 seconds of silence presented at the beginning of each track as title information is flashed on screen.

For devotees of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, and of Ms Nikolayeva’s immortal performances of them, the mere existence of this DVD is recommendation enough. The superb production values enhance their value immensely.

Louis Blois