A recent issue of The New York Times contained a long story by music reporter and critic Allan Kozinn about the announcement of the coming availability of more than a million recorded performances from the former Soviet, now Russian, audio and video archives. Ex-Soviet archives are now the rage: they include of course not just recordings of music but possibly fascinating political material documenting—at least one hopes that is the word that can be used—seventy-four years of bloody tyranny. In the case of the political material, clear title to the material and unimpeded access to the unadulterated sources are still very much in question. It is likely that obtaining an accurate account of what lies locked in the music archives will be a good deal easier.

Of the 1.2 million recordings (which also include political speeches and literary readings), approximately 300,000 are of classical music. Most of them, according to the Times, run an hour or longer. At least some of them go back to the 1930s, and include the playing of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, the violinists David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the conductors Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Kirill Kondrashin. The Times omits mention of any performances by such great though lesser-known artists as pianists Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964) and Maria Yudina (1899-1970), and, more surprisingly, of any performances by Yevgeni Mravinsky, the conductor widely acknowledged to be the greatest conductor produced in Russia since the October Revolution.

It is a pleasant sign that the new masters of the archives, contrary to former Soviet practice, will pay royalties to the performers whose materials are used; it is pleasant too that some of this material, previously unavailable commercially in the West, will provide a more than superficial glimpse into the Silver Age of Russian musical performance. It is a curious fact that, of all the arts, music and dance—for all the terrible pressures suffered by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and thousands of lesser fame—were the most kindly treated by Stalin and his henchmen. Unlike writers and visual artists, famous musicians and dancers appear to have been relatively free from arrest, imprisonment, and murder; if they performed well, and paid the necessary extraordinary obeisance to the all-knowing father of Soviet music and dance, they seem to have been left alone, and, by Soviet standards, cosseted. The reason for this rule of relative mercy remains unclear. Stalin undoubtedly liked music and dance, and especially music. The most distinguished Soviet musicians and dancers were relatively well known and admired abroad, and so partially protected by the existence of world opinion—just another example of how horridly effective Stalinist fellow-travelers were in sustaining, by their silence or often warm approval, a climate in which Stalin could murder anyone else at will.

For music lovers in the West, the release of the best of this hoard of material will be welcome, though not without elements of rue. If this material lives up to its billing—and to what we know of the work of the musicians who appear in these performances—it will be yet another demonstration of the parlous state of music performance today, not just in the West but also in what used to be called the East. And there will be two other, and vastly more, disquieting elements present in our minds as we hear these recordings: first, the fact that each of these recordings was made by artists who, in order to survive, collaborated to some extent with a regime of pure evil; and, second, the question of how great art can exist, as it surely did in the Soviet Union, under conditions of unparalleled barbarism. Whether or not there are answers to these moral problems this side of eternity, it is clear, to our great dismay, that the rapidly concluding twentieth century has thus far failed to provide them.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 4, on page 3
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