We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


Living in a seriously totalitarian country is an experience that someone who has never lived in a seriously totalitarian country inevitably finds it extremely hard to imagine accurately. As with today’s religious topic du jour, crucifixion, I can only guess at a tiny fraction of what it must have been like.

As I understand it, each person lives in his little personal, private pod (assuming he gets to live at all, that is). Totalitarianism creates a degree of individualism, if that is the right word, that people in a free country can never experience. This is because you simply cannot afford to allow strangers any glimpse of what is going on in your mind, let alone speak your mind to them. (As for telling the truth to visiting foreigners whom you do not know extremely well – that is absurd.) You can trust nobody out there. Intimate friends whom you do trust, and family of course, are everything in such a world.

Do the true feelings of the people ever express themselves? Well, when the lid is well and truly screwed down, no. But if things do loosen up a little, then there is one kind of event where truth can begin to make itself felt, namely at an artistic event of some kind. Clearly, you cannot write and perform a play about what total shits the people who rule your country are, (British) National Theatre style, complete with actual names and actual ranks and actual serial numbers, any more than you can found an anti-totalitarian political party and run candidates for public office. But you can perform, I don’t know, Hamlet, and give the audience a chance let out a collective gasp or do a round of stifled applause or a burst of muffled cheers when some Shakespeare character just happens to say something about how things are just now.

When Hamlet itemises the rottenness of “Denmark” – “. . . the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely … the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes . . .” . . . there can be a collective frisson saying: yes!!!, and if the authorities complain and want to shut the play down, well, it’s only a play by some dead English bloke from long ago, what’s the fuss? No, no, no, this isn’t politics, this is culture. File under people, opium of the. Besides, what will they think in London and New York and Washington about censoring Shakespeare?

Two recent events reminded me of all this. First, I was a Samizdata dinner gathering not long ago, and I said something about culture under Communism which provoked one of my fellow Samizdatistas into an impassioned speech (based on personal experience) along the lines of what I have just tried to say in the previous few paragraphs.

And the other event which got me thinking about this was, of all things, a CD of some Beethoven piano sonatas, including the so-called Appassionata, No 23 in F minor op. 57.

This is a famous piece and I have heard it literally hundreds of times. I possess lots of CD performances of it, often coupled with such other Beethoven piano sonata favourites as the Pathétique sonata and the Moonlight sonata.

But the trouble with listening to CD recordings of something like the Appassionata is that the very perfection with which the piece is necessarily played when a studio recording is being made does a fundamental disservice to this music. This is music that is out of control, music that is throwing a tantrum, music that makes rage public.

Knowing this, our young piano competition winner with his brand new recording contract strides into the recording studio in a mood to conquer the world, and rips through the piece in a suitably impassioned manner. Excellent, they say. Really excellent. (And it was.) But, they say, could we please do it again? And he does do it again, and again, and again, and then they splice together all the “perfect” bits, and they have their perfect recording. Only trouble is, what they have is not quite the Appassionata any more. It’s not rage any longer. It is rage with all the words coming out perfectly. Rage with the spit missing.

But what I found myself listening to the other day was a performance of the Appassionata that made me drop everything and listen in astonishment. It was a recording of a live performance given by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels, in January 1961. I do not know where it was given, but based on what I do know and what is known about other such performances by Gilels, it was almost certainly given in Russia.

And what a performance it is! Gilels tears into it, and had me listening to it as if for the first time ever.

It really is a weird piece, let me tell you. It is like a classical painting, covered in stab wounds, real ones I mean. Time and again, an infinitely tender phrase right out of the moonlight bit of the Moonlight Sonata (by the way, try the third movement of that as well!), which would normally end with a single chord, is yanked out of itself by the final soft chord being turned into a tantrum of extremely loud chords … and then, as if shushed by an armed policeman, it goes back to another tender phrase as if nothing had happened. Knowing very roughly the kind of world this piece was being played in, and very roughly the sort of lives the people in the audience were living, in 1961, it made me think of beloved relatives snatched away and lost for ever, and of the rage that those left behind felt about what had been done to their loved ones and to themselves.

By 1961 – I’m still guessing – the word was starting seriously to get around about what had been going on and was still going on in Russia. Such horrors were no longer completely private events, in the sense of those subjected to them having no clear idea of what the hell had been happening to the country as a whole. There had been a “secret” speech from Khruschev, which must by then have resulted in all kinds of rumours and compared notes, especially among the kind of people in an audience like this one. The picture was starting to become clear. Mistakes had been made. Errors of Leninist interpretation had been committed. Communism had harmed itself, and The Party had done itself severe damage. It still was not safe to talk about it all, but it was starting to be that everyone knew very roughly what had been going on.

Into such a world, this performance of the Appassionata by Emil Gilels erupted.

It is full of wrong notes, and played on what sounds like a decidedly dodgy piano, and for all I know, the only thing that Gilels was angry about (and by God is he angry) was the fact that it was a bad piano and that by his reckoning he was, notes-wise, having a bit of an off day playing it. It begins with a grotesquely late edit, as if they only just remembered that they were supposed to be recording the damn thing.

And for that matter, the only thing that Beethoven himself might have been thinking about when he wrote the piece in the first place was some spat he had had with a pompous aristocrat who considered himself to be a superior person to him, Beethoven. Or perhaps Beethoven – pathetic self-pitying Beethoven this time – was angry about having been gently but firmly rebuffed romantically (I missed out “the pangs of despised love” from that Hamlet list of complaints above) by one of his aristocratic lady pupils. (They now say that Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, the last, slow movement of which sounds like funeral music for at least a thousand very significant people, was really just Tchaikovsky feeling sorry for himself about being gay.)

But I really do not see how anyone in the audience, that January day in Russia in 1961, could have missed the universal import of this extraordinary piece, and the kind of universal experiences which it immortalises. They would, in short, have completely understood it.

I also possess the official studio recording made by Gilels in 1973 for Deutsche Grammophon, in Berlin. Before setting about writing this, I put that on the CD player as well, to compare and contrast.

As I suspected, the comparison is no comparison. It is the difference between an early evening BBC2 TV documentary about some battle, with a little bloke in gum boots striding about in some fields, in among the cows, talking about it, and . . . the battle.

The bad news is that this extraordinary performance is, I think, only available in the form of a six disc box set of Beethoven recordings by Gilels. But the good news is that they are all terrific. They include all the piano concertos, the Hammerklavier Sonata and two more sonata discs, and the entire box only cost me a mere £15 in HMV Oxford Street.

Happy Easter everybody, when it finally arrives.

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