The conductor discusses Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, and moving on from Oslo and Liverpool
A new project with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra sees the orchestra's outgoing Chief Conductor, Vasily Petrenko, pair symphonies with Prokofiev with his lesser-known contemporary and countryman, Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881–1950). The Russian conductor talks to IDAGIO about the release, as well as his 15-year relationship with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and his appointment as Music Director of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, starting with the 2021-22 season.
Why Prokofiev and Myaskovsky?
Myaskovsky was a great composer, and though he's relatively well known in Russia, he's almost not at all known in the West. So I'm trying to do propaganda for his music and his symphonies. In the same way Weinberg was a contemporary and friend of Shostakovich, so was Myaskovsky a contemporary of Prokofiev. They died around the same time; they had certain milestones in their lives at similar times. They were both Russian, and witnessed the same historical events. Though Prokofiev and Mysakovsky knew each other quite well, I don't think they were very close friends – actually, I think it's difficult to say that anyone was particularly close friends with either.
A big difference was that Prokofiev was able to leave and spend some time in the West before voluntarily returning. Myaskovsky never left. And while Prokofiev, at the beginning especially, was a kind of enfant terrible, Myaskovsky was one of the last pupils of Rimsky-Korsakov – a follower of that tradition. Though he used modern harmonies, his music is closer to Scriabin.
The new album couples Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 with Myaskovsky's Symphony No. 20. How do you see those works?
They were both written around the same time, in 1944 and 1940, but they're so different. The Prokofiev is this epic piece about the heroic folk, Soviet humans, not on the frontline in World War II but back home. It's about the glory of the human spirit, and this colossal effort by the people to try and bring victory through their everyday work, by their everyday sacrifice – even if they knew there'd be no reward.
The first movement is like a "Gloria" for the human spirit. The slow movement, which uses music originally written for [an unrealized film version of] Pique Dame, offers his very deep internal thoughts about the essence of life, his thoughts about existence. Then the finale is almost over-enthusiastic. It has this huge spirit of building, industry and manufacturing, going towards this prosperous future. But then just towards the end – literally 30 seconds before it – there's this little passage with the solo string quartet playing, where it's almost as if over-enthusiasm is driving a person to madness. So in the end you understand that everyone's happy, but it raises the question: was it worth it?
And the Myaskovsky?
Myaskovsky wrote his symphony about the strife and suffering of the human soul – of his own personal soul, but also, historically, of humanity. It's about how much you're losing, how big are the losses for the people close to you, how much belief you have in the future. It's a questioning symphony, right from the start, and it's disturbing in that way. But then, at the end, it gives a bit of revelation, even if, again, it's not fully resolved.
Is there more Prokofiev and Myskovsky to come?
We've also recorded a pairing of Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony with Myaskovsky's 27th. So, although that's not the last Prokofiev symphony, it was written when he had health problems – and it was the same for Myaskovsky. They knew that time was ticking. Both those two symphonies are very different too, also written with a year of one another. So this is like a mini-series of these two composers, and probably the last in the series of my recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic – but maybe we'll do some other projects in the future!
You've now left the Oslo post and are due to take over as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic in 2021, when you'll step down as Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to become its Conductor Laureate. What is it that you particularly like about UK orchestras?
What's not to like about British orchestras? I think actually if you take all the big orchestras here in the UK and find the average level, it's probably the country with the highest level in the world. There aren't as many as, for instance, in Germany, because there is far less in terms of government support – even before events of this year. But each orchestra really plays with its heart, and because of the tough competition, all British orchestras really value their time. There's never a minute wasted, and the pace of everything is so efficient – for good or bad.
And you've been in Liverpool for 15 years now – what do the orchestra and the city mean to you?
It feels like family. It's a feeling of being together. And we've achieved a lot – at least before this year. Almost every concert was sold out. We had tours every year. This year we were supposed to do the full Mahler cycle, but we could only do the first two. And the orchestra is really at the heart of the city. In a way there's no competition. There are visiting opera companies, some ballet, but in terms of classical music, this is the core of Liverpool, and for 176 years the people have had this affection for the orchestra. If you ask anyone on the street what they know about classical music, they'll say, "the Philharmonic".
The passion of the people, the passion of the musicians, the passion of the management – with quite limited financial funds – to raise their game every day of every week of every year: it's incredible. But, when it's a family, it's almost like a child. And at some point you need to let your child find its own way.
Vasily Petrenko's latest albums include Stravinsky and Respighi with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Prokofiev and Myaskovksy with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, both available to listen to on IDAGIO now.
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