Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Russian Sound?

The sound of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic continues to ring in my ears, even while my wife and I have escaped to the splendid isolation (sort of) of Fort Bragg for one of our "beer runs." (The town has an impressively imaginative brewery.) I already mentioned the way in which Yuri Temirkanov "worked" the low strings in his approach to the Beethoven violin concerto. I realize that he also did not neglect them when conducting Mozart, and in the Prokofiev fifth they were reinforced by low brass resources that were not available to Mozart and Beethoven. Considering this alongside the tradition of the sound of a Russian bass voice makes me wonder whether or not there is some "natural affinity" for the lower register in Russian tradition. On further reflection, however, I realize that one could probably come up with as many counter-examples as examples. I remember the particularly high strings in the Shostakovich fifth, whose very tension always seems to derive from the effort to reach up yet another semitone. Thus, it may not be anything characteristically Russian as much as a "Temirkanov sound," which exhibits a palette of colors decidedly different from those of Valery Gergiev, the only other Russian conductor to whom I have listened with more than passing attention.

All this reminds me of the recent appearance of a new translation of War and Peace. We seem to be in the midst of a major reexamination of the role of the Russian language in Russian literature. Those of us who do not know Russian have had to rely almost entirely on the impressively prodigious efforts of Constance Garnett and those who followed in her path, providing us with no end of fascinating plots rendered pretty much in the language of Victorian novels. The new translation is the collaborative work of two experts in the composition of text, one in English (Richard Pevear) and the other in Russian (Larissa Volokhonsky). Through their own prodigious efforts, this team has finally brought us the understanding that Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and all the others did not speak in the common "voice" that Garnett had fashioned for them.

Similarly, Gergiev and Temirkanov do not speak in a common voice, any more than, to use my previous example, Wilhelm Furtwängler spoke in the same voice as Arturo Toscanini. The good news is that live performances are as diverse as they ever were, and we have much to gain from them. The bad news is that recording technology often tends to smooth over those differences, particularly when they involve control of dynamics and sound color. Thus, in an age in which touring becomes both more difficult and more expensive, it is unfortunately that fewer and fewer parts of the world can appreciate all the diversity now available to us.

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