11 May 2012
Valery Gergiev: why Igor Stravinsky was Russian to the core - interview (The Telegraph)
Stravinsky may have left his homeland, but, says Valery Gergiev, the composer’s homeland never left him. On the eve of a celebratory concert series, the conductor talks to Ivan Hewett
Igor Stravinsky: a giant figure of modern music, perhaps the greatest. But also a great shape-shifter, the man who could sound like a ragtime composer in one piece, Rossini in the next, and Mozart in the one after that. Even in his appearance Stravinsky is a person of masks. In photos of the Twenties, when he lived in exile in France and Switzerland, he looks the perfect French aristocrat with his cape and monocle. In other photos he presents an image of a severe modern rationalist in shirtsleeves, artfully posed with metronomes and player-pianos. Late in life, after he’d moved to America, he looked like a diminutive movie mogul in furs and dark glasses; when he stepped off a plane at Mexico City he delighted crowds by twirling his hat at the tip of his cane.
It isn’t just the showmanship that makes some doubt his sincerity. Some serious musicologists claim there isn’t a real musical identity at the bottom of all that fabulous variety. They say the masks go all the way down. Perhaps that’s why Stravinsky keeps his fascination – he’s the emblematic composer for the postmodern age, as well as the modern one.
Valery Gergiev will have none of this. “I am convinced that everything that Stravinsky wrote is marked by the country of his birth. You know, right at the end of his life, when he had been living in America for nearly 30 years, he said: ‘I speak many languages, but my tongue is Russian.’”
Much the same could be said of Gergiev himself. Which is why he’s the ideal person to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra’s all-Stravinsky series, which takes place later this month. As well as four concerts in the Barbican Hall it includes a free concert of two great Stravinsky ballets taking place in Trafalgar Square on May 12. This London series follows on from a hugely successful Stravinsky series Gergiev conducted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra two years ago, which attracted unexpectedly varied crowds. “It was amazing, we had all kinds of people, young and old,” he says. “I remember one night Al Pacino and Maurizio Pollini were in the audience.”
The connection between Gergiev and Stravinsky goes beyond their shared Russian-ness. They were nurtured, culturally and musically, by the same city: St Petersburg. Gergiev was actually born far away in the Caucasus, but he studied in St Petersburg, and since 1988 has been running that city’s Mariinsky Theatre with an extraordinary despotic power which is so very Russian, and so unthinkable in the West.
It’s a theatre with a long and proud history. “You know Stravinsky’s life was absolutely connected to this theatre,” says Gergiev, “right from his childhood. His father was a famous bass singer of the time, who was in the Mariinsky company for most of his life, and took many leading roles in Russian operas by Rimsky-Korsakov and others. And Stravinsky tells us that the most thrilling moment of his life was hearing the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra as a child.”
Gergiev was a student at a time when Soviet musical policy was still staunchly anti-modernist, and works by Western avant-gardists could only be secretly circulated in samizdat copies. Stravinsky’s later works fell under the same cloud, as they were written in a hyper-refined adaptation of the so-called “12-note” system, invented by Arnold Schoenberg. And, of course, he was the turncoat who left Russia never to return, and often made wounding remarks from his Californian eyrie about the backwardness of Soviet musical culture.
Did Gergiev encounter any hostility towards him? “Absolutely not. He was regarded with enormous affection. Of course people were puzzled by the works of the Sixties, but you have to remember that Stravinsky made a return visit to Russia in 1962. It was a very emotional occasion, which reminded him how Russian he really was.”
There are touching photographs of that time, showing the diminutive prodigal son surrounded by the cream of Soviet musical life. One of those eager to greet the legendary figure was the man who became Gergiev’s professor at the St Petersburg Conservatoire.
“He was a brilliant man who I remember talked about Stravinsky a lot. He said he was a brilliant liar, who was determined to throw off his past and base himself in Paris, which was the arbiter of fashion in cultural matters at that time. He could reinvent himself as this iconoclast who attacked Bach, Beethoven, absolutely everybody. He kept himself at the centre of attention by making one polemical statement after another, and in a way the pieces themselves are like statements. Poor Prokofiev suffered by being the second Russian exile, and he could never catch up. For Stravinsky there was only one bad result, and that was if no one was talking about you,” says Gergiev with a laugh.
It’s clear that Gergiev can’t help admiring this other, very non-Russian aspect of Stravinsky. “He really was the most chameleon-like figure in the history of music, far more than the other great figure of the century, which was Schoenberg. Really it is such an irony they ended up being almost neighbours in the late Thirties in Hollywood.”
Mentioning Schoenberg reminds Gergiev of another essential aspect of Stravinsky’s genius, which is amply reflected in his forthcoming season with the LSO.
“You have to remember that many of his greatest pieces belong to the theatre. There are three great Russian ballets, or four if you count Les Noces, and these absolutely transformed the art form of ballet. It placed it at the centre of the art world of the time. And there are the operas, including Oedipus Rex, which we are performing – and how Russian this piece is, even if the language is Latin! Also the pieces which are not for the theatre often have a feel of an image or a narrative, and there is always this dancing rhythm you can feel in every bar. Whereas Schoenberg had a completely different conception of ‘pure music’, which is part of his German-Austrian heritage.”
Once you get Gergiev on to Stravinsky’s imaginative world, it’s hard to stop him. “You know he was fascinated by the same Russian fairy-tale world that you find in Liadov and Tchaikovsky. It’s a world which is so rooted in the culture. After all, what is the fairground scene in Petrouchka but a picture of what we call malinska? This is a Russian word for butter, which is a luxury for poor people. It refers to the time when everyone celebrates the end of winter. It’s a whole week of feasting, and was totally spontaneous, there was no order from the Tsar.” For a moment I have a vision of Gergiev enjoying a malinska himself as a young student in St Petersburg. Alas no.
“Unfortunately all those things were crushed by Communism, so I have no experience of it myself. But that is why I love works such as Les Noces and Renard, which describe these ancient Russian customs and have words that even Russians no longer know. Stravinsky was so modern, but he also connects us to our past.”