Kirill Gerstein

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Exeter with An Artist’s Reply – Russian response to criticism

On Thursday 7 December, the Great Hall, Exeter will once again host Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky and joined by the award-winning concert pianist Kirill Gerstein, whom the New York Times describes as “one of the most respected pianists of his generation”. ‘An Artist’s Reply’ includes three compositions from Russian composers, each a response to a personal threat.

After returning to his homeland of the USSR for good, Sergei Prokofiev reacted to the criticism he had received about his earlier works with some of the most popular compositions in his oeuvre, including the Romeo and Juliet suite, which opens the concert.

Although it is a personal approach to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, it certainly retains the fierce passion found in the original – the terrifically dramatic section titled, The Montagues and the Capulets has acquired world-fame as the theme to The Apprentice.

In the midst of a changing era after the fin de siècle, the staunch Romanticism of Sergei Rachmaninov was beginning to lose popularity, as evidenced by the poor reception of his 4th piano concerto.

His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini therefore was his response to this decline in public opinion. It was inspired by the ‘neoclassical’ aesthetic which had taken Europe by storm after the First World War.

The work unfolds into 24 variations, each an embellishment of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. However, in 1931, his works were banned in the USSR and Rachmaninov was declared a “violent enemy of Soviet Russia”.

In these times, under the brutal reign of Stalin, Russian composers were forced to write in a heroic, positive style to inspire patriotism for the state. This was a terrible constriction for the young composer Dmitri Shostakovich, well known for his compositional practice exploring the darker side of humanity.

He lived in constant fear of “disappearing”, like many close to him. Pravda (the Russian newspaper) were keen to revile his works at every opportunity – after the premiere of Lady Macbeth, he waited outside his house so that the NKVD would not disturb his family if they came to arrest him.

His 5th Symphony in D minor was a clever response to the terror that the state was inflicting on him. The last movement, a “heroic” march starting with a brass quasi-fanfare and culminating in a colossal ending marked triple forte, is set about to mock the ideals set out by Stalin, at the same time as submitting to the public taste and therefore saving his life.

Indeed if it wasn’t for the exuberant response of the audience, an ovation lasting for half an hour, the piece almost certainly would have had him killed.

‘An Artist’s Reply’ takes place on Thursday, December 7. The programme starts at 7.30pm.

To book tickets, please visit , or visit or call the Exeter Northcott Theatre on 01392 726363

(image: Kirill Gerstein)

Philip R Buttall

Philip Buttall

Philip Buttall

Philip R Buttall was the Classical Music Writer at Plymouth Herald from 1997-2017. He is a sought-after piano teacher, composer and arranger, and online concert and CD reviewer. Further information and contact details are available at
Philip Buttall