Enduring the Mariinsky Theatre's rendition of Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House this summer, I couldn't help recalling a party I once attended at the home of a Russian in London. The owner had built a magnificent extension. "The council tells me height limit," he said. "Then I build six inches higher!"
The Mariinsky Ring felt like a building constructed so far beyond the rules that it topples over. Performing the immense cycle on consecutive days, the company, even the usually tireless conductor Valery Gergiev, audibly struggled. The production was dire and audience members who had forked out a small fortune were loath to admit they were being short-changed.
It was a far cry from the glory days of what used to be called the "Russian School" — the legendary musicians of the early- to mid-20th century: Sergei Rachmaninov, Fyodor Chaliapin, Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich. In compositional terms, it goes back as far as the nationalistic style of Glinka, Dargomizhky and the "Mighty Five" (Mili Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin). In the USSR, gifted youngsters were nurtured with free musical education that was the best in the world — even if they would later be manipulated for propaganda purposes by Stalin and his minions. But in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the changes to this revered culture have not always been positive. As one musician who had known Shostakovich remarks: "Today it's all about money."
The pianist Mikhail Rudy, now 55, left Russia for France in 1977 in a headline-hitting defection. Of the "Russian School", he tells me, "Great classical musicians in the Soviet Union were artistically and morally very important people. We went to concerts as if attending church. You wouldn't just go to hear a virtuoso: we wanted much more." With religion banned, music filled a spiritual void and artistic levels were expected to be appropriately stratospheric.
"The great Russian musicians had two things in common," Rudy continues, "a high level of technique and a very distinct personality. You can't find more different personalities than Gilels, Sofronitzky, Richter, Oistrakh. The expectation of such extreme character in soloists has faded with the changes in society: now Russian players have become more like other musicians. And a concert has become simply a performance, like visiting a museum."
Vladimir Jurowski, 37, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was born into a family of Russian musicians. They moved to Berlin when he was 18 but he has been profoundly influenced by Soviet artistic traditions. The emphasis of music-making in Russia today, he says, has shifted "from creation to production" — from art as "a matter of life and death", to a commodity mass-produced, piled high and sold expensively. But Jurowski adds that the collapse of communism "was the result of this general shift in society. It did not cause it." He also suggests, "Unfortunately in the West, there is a lack of serious judgment, which leads to the thoughtless consumption of anything supposedly ‘important' from Russia, without any criticism."