Monday, 15 February 2010
A horde of old Cossacks
Funny the classics I've missed out on since the glorious year of Russian studies back in 1982 (had I done it in first year at university, I'd unquestionably have changed to a Russian degree course - my only big regret in life). Last year, writing on the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas for Aldeburgh, I finally caught up with Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata and was shaken to the core. Now it's Janacek time again, and in preparing something on the Russophilia of the master for ENO's programme on the new production of Katya Kabanova, I thought it was time to read Gogol's Taras Bulba, that 'colossal portrait in a small frame' as Belinsky described it of the wild southern Cossacks.
So what is it, 'one of the ten greatest books of all time' (as if one would trust that homophobe Hemingway) or a 'dreadful..."colourful romance" ' from which, Nabokov thought, Gogol was rescued in the nick of time? Well, I guess I'd rather dash through Taras Bulba than plough my way through Dead Souls a third time, for all its top-notch comic moments. Maybe the evocation of the barbaric Ukraine in the 16th-17th centuries is a fantasy, but what a vivid and engaging fantasy! Repin's marvellous pictures, taken from studies of Cossacks he knew, are certainly on a par (above is one of several celebrated representations of 'the Zaporozhye Cossacks writing an insulting letter to the Turkish Sultan').
How one comes to feel for the veteran commander with his sly knowledge of Horace and his two sons, fated from the first. Do we blame the spirit of the age for the way they had to live? In a half-interesting, half-infuriating introduction to the Modern Library edition, Robert D. Kaplan summarises well:
The great divisions in Gogol's Taras Bulba are those of civilizations: the Eastern Orthodox Dnieper Cossacks are pitted against the Catholic Poles and the Muslim Turks and Tatars. This is a world so coarse, and so unreceptive to enlightenment, that freedom means only the freedom to express oneself through a stultifying yet energizing group identity - a sad commonplace in many parts of the world today, where dictatorships are crumbling and real democracy is weak or nonexistent. In such places, a fury burns that is beyond the cultivated bourgeois imagination. Gogol communicates this fury brilliantly.
Alas, Kaplan has to go and spoil it all by comparing America's 'robust passion' with the 'effete, bureaucratic and defeatist' policies of Europe which, he says, are in for a horrible shock from the eastern hordes. Well, whatever the correspondences with today, Taras Bulba is a cracking good read, full of sparkling detail and loving evocation of the Steppes.
Janacek's tone poem, marvellous on its own terms, gives you little idea of what to expect from Gogol other than the euphoric Slavic ideal at the end. I was knocked for six by Neumann's recording with the Czech Philharmonic, having been too slavishly bound to Mackerras. The Sinfonietta on the same CD has some of the most hallucinatory, howling horn playing I've ever heard. Belatedly, I see that Jurowski's fabulous LPO programme on Saturday, which I'd singled out by virtue of another chance - post-Rattle - to hear Suk's Asrael Symphony, actually begins with Taras Bulba. That, if I remember correctly, will be the first time I've ever heard it in a concert hall. Great Vladimir, canny programmer ever, continues a mini Gogolfest next Thursday with Shostakovich's unfinished Gamblers plural - in which a superb Russian line-up will be part-directed by our friend from the Arcola Jenufa and the RSAMD War and Peace Irina Brown - and his suite from The Nose.
Finally, while we're on the subject of implacable hatreds, and Gogol's questioning of whether any tenderness can flourish in such societies, don't fail to hear Chandos's CD issue of MacMillan's The Sacrifice. I'll say no more about its circumstances; it's all the more powerful if you don't know what's about to hit you.
J MacM and his librettist Michael Symmonds Roberts were very happy with my booklet babble when I sent it for approval, so I take a childish pride in reproducing the composer's observation that 'the note is marvellous. It's just what we need.' The cynical might say, well, they would think that, wouldn't they? A pat on the back for the only opera of the last 20 years, post-Nixon in China , I reckon will be around for a very long time was hardly likely to displease. But I'm sincere - and others are welcome to challenge. Marc Rochester, writing in the International Record Review, asked whether I was 'over-egging the cake' when I compared MacMillan's word-setting to Britten's. And came up with the answer: 'Not a bit of it. The Sacrifice is an undoubted classic of our time and a worthy successor to the great Britten operas of the last century'. Good - it's not just me, then.