American Record Guide
, December 2008
The "bonus" items are the real draw here: a rollicking, show-stopping performance of Rozhdestvensky’s arrangement of Schnittke’s movie score Dead Souls plus Prokofieff’s short 1939 cantata Zdravista with lovely music and a ridiculous over-the-top text praising dictator Stalin on his 60th birthday, both conducted by Rozhdestvensky in 2002. The two documentaries by Bruno Monsaigneon are enjoyable and informative, but rather too much “blahblah” when one would rather see the maestro in action, making music.
In the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of Communist control in Russia allowed many artists who had been “gathered in” during the final decade of the regime to travel and perform with Western ensembles, I had the good fortune to hear Rozhdestvensky lead the Chicago Symphony several times. A powerful Shostakovich 4th downtown and even more memorable concerts at Ravinia that included an unforgettable performance of the same composer’s First Violin Concerto with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg remain indelibly stamped on my musical memory. The true depth of Rozhdestvensky’s talent as an artist became apparent to me; when the conductor, the music, and the orchestra “click”, sparks fly. Since then, his interpretations have gotten slower, not always to their benefit; but even now one cannot name a greater proponent of Russian music—particularly of the 20th Century—than Rozhdestvensky.
Rozhdestvensky has the unique distinction of being a nonconformist who still managed to have a good career in both Communist and post-Communist Russia. That he got away with refusing to toe the Party line as much as he did under the Old Regime is a bit surprising, though he has some stories to tell. Like many Russians, Rozhdestvensky seems to draw a bittersweet amusement from pondering the contradictions, injustices, and pure inanities of the Russian System, both Communist and otherwise. In the first film, he diligently reads to us two versions of a passage from an official biography of Prokofieff, the second one expurgated to remove reference to a government official who became a nonperson. The passivity of the artists’ response may strike Americans as odd, given our tendency to want to kick some rear and sort things out pronto—an over-simplified response, I’m sure. Still, The Red Baton (as this is titled) gives one some understanding about why it took the Russian people 73 years to get rid of the absurd Communist government.
Another question that the program raised in my mind but failed to answer is this: why were the Communists so obsessed with cultural and artistic achievement? Tremendous effort and resources—and secret police monitoring—went into fostering artistic talent, which on the one hand the Party leaders seemed crave to show to the rest of the world, perhaps as a demonstration of the great superiority of the Communist system. Yet on the other hand, that talent was largely kept sequestered and jealously guarded within their own borders. And consider how many major artists defected to the West as soon as they were allowed to travel out of Russia. So we have the curious contradiction of a System that worked hard to foster creative artists like Richter, Oistrakh, Kogan, Rostropovich, Barshai, Mravinsky, Shostakovich, and many others, yet worked just as hard to control and even stifle their artistic growth.
The Red Baton tells you what happened with the aid of some excellent, rarely seen film footage and first-hand reminiscences by Rozhdestvensky, Barshai, and Viktoria Postnikova. But it does little to explain why.
Despite a subtitle that smacks of an over ambitious college film student’s project, “Scenes of Musical Life in Stalinist Russia”, Gennady Rozhdestvensky: Conductor or Conjurer? (actually misspelled “Conjuror” on the box) does as good a job as just about any documentary I’ve seen at explaining how a seasoned maestro goes about making music. Rozhdestvensky is as charming and modest as an interviewee as he is on the podium—and completely debunks the pretentious title. He is clearly a practical musician of many years' experience who knows how to get 100 musicians to perform well together. The film shows plenty of rehearsal shots, and we get to see the conductor’s unique podium style from the orchestra, as opposed to the view one usually gets from the audience. It is neither fussy and pretentious, nor over-the-top and athletic; it is expressive and fluid, yet sensible about making sure the musicians can see their important cues.
If these programs showed up on my local PBS station, I’d happily watch them. But I’m not sure I would buy them. Once you’ve watched the programs once or twice, there isn’t much to be gained from re-watching them. 4:3 aspect ratio and Dolby 2.0 only, with narration and subtitles in English and French.