You were raised in the Soviet Union. How aware were you growing up of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution?

I had heard of it as I grew up in a musical family – my mother still teaches in the music academy and she specialises in 20th-century music. I knew it was written for a huge orchestra with some unusual instruments like accordions and so on and I thought, “well, it’d be nice to conduct it one day”.

Kirill KarabitsKirill Karabits. Photo © kirillkarabits.com

Then, when the Staatskapelle Weimar happened to want something unusual for their summer Kunstfest – this is an arts festival – I thought, “well, this piece needs a very special occasion, so this is probably the moment to do it”, because it was exactly 100 years since the Revolution. And in the first-half we had the Concerto for DJ and Turntables by Prokofiev’s grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev. When the Berlin radio said they would love to do a live broadcast, and by the way if you can find a label who would be interested in publishing the recording we would be very happy to give it to them, it all came together – though it happened at the very last minute.

Prokofiev had a very broad career – he worked in America, he worked in Europe, and then returned to the Soviet Union. How was he perceived when you were growing up? Was he perceived as a Soviet composer, or as a Russian composer? 

To me, he is a Soviet composer. He was a composer who was very keen in developing his career in France. But I think he was one of those people who are very much attached to their homeland. He couldn’t live far away from his home, unlike Stravinsky. When he got this proposition to actually come back to the Soviet Union in the 30s he happily accepted it. He believed very much that he was going back home, and it gave him a huge impulse for his future works. Of course, what he didn’t know was how difficult things would get later and what affairs he was actually putting himself into. But at the beginning, I think it was a rather happy time for him.

So how did this work come about?

He was a very revolutionary composer, as we know. So, the theme of revolution was something close to him. But what interested him the most was the idea of changing society, of a new type of human being, of struggle for a better future – those topics were very close to him. So, he accepted this commission to write a cantata and his original idea was to write a cantata which would be based only on Lenin’s ideas and Lenin’s texts. The name was also ‘The Lenin Cantata’ when he started working on it. But then things were politically complicated because Stalin was in power already, and the relationship between Lenin’s ideology and Stalin’s ideology wasn’t simple. You couldn’t praise Lenin completely like this while Stalin was in power. There had to be a compromise, and institutions like the radio – they didn’t want to take a risk. That’s when the process of adopting some text from Stalin started. Prokofiev tried very hard, but it was not his original idea.

Lenin addresses the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in St Petersburg

So, what did he do?

He made several changes to the piece, and included text from what was at the time the new Soviet Constitution, which was approved by Communist Party. But I think he did find a compromise which still made him feel that he wrote the piece he wanted. There is no one reason why it wasn’t performed, but the main reason, I think, was that people were just scared to perform something like that. It is a political piece of music in a way, and it was just too overwhelming. So, nobody wanted to take the risk and actually present it.

At the time, there was this great push to produce the Socialist Realist aesthetic – simple tunes, the kind that ordinary people would understand, folk elements and that kind of stuff. It does seem to start off that way, but then you get the big ‘Revolution’ movement with all of the sirens and all that kind of stuff, which is actually incredibly dense and complex. Do you think he was struggling to marry his desire to be complicated with his desire to be simple?

The piece is not that complicated. If you compare it to the Second Symphony, it’s a very easy listen actually. But as a performer, it does have two parts and the first part is up to the sixth, Revolution, movement. The melodies, and how he treats the huge number of performers, the military band, accordion and all these theatrical effects with machine guns – it’s just fantastic. I don’t think there is any other piece in music history that can be compared to this – it’s extraordinary. It’s very theatrical, which of course is typical of Prokofiev – he is a very theatrical composer. He thinks big. It’s all very colourful and makes a huge impact in performance an on audience. It was astonishing to see how our musicians and performers reacted to it. They thought it was a propaganda piece, which we were just putting on because it was 100 years from the Revolution. But actually, they were coming and saying, “this is great music, no matter what the world says”.

Do you feel that Prokofiev genuinely believed in everything the text was saying? Or, was there ever a driver to produce something that would cement his standing as a Soviet composer?

There is nothing false in the piece. I think he probably believes in the first-half of the piece, up to and including the sixth movement. He certainly believes and tries to present those texts in a very positive way. One could expect there to be an element of sarcasm or that there would be a parody of something, but I didn’t find any parody in this music. Until recently I was quite confused with this. Where is the mockery? Where is the hidden protest against what he was writing? I put the same question to Rodion Shchedrin, the famous composer, who I know very well. He was there at the premiere of the piece. I asked him: “I’m just so curious to know. Was Prokofiev believing in what he was writing or was he forced to write it?” He said, “Of course he was believing. We all believed in it. I believed in it. I believed in communist ideas when I was 15 and 16. We did believe that people are equal. That was our life”.

Kirill KarabitsKirill Karabits. Photo © Denis Manokha

You grew up in the Soviet Union, but you are Ukrainian now. How do you feel about a work like this? Is it at all uncomfortable for you?

Not at all. With all the processes that are going on at the moment, I don’t think I should be ashamed of my past. This tendency, which I feel very strongly in the Ukraine at the moment – because they’re trying to deny everything that happened in the Soviet Union and sort of say it was a mistake and only now we have found the right way – I don’t agree with this. I don’t think people should be ashamed of that past. I think it’s a very manipulative, political idea which is imposed on people. But there were very good things, and I am today who I am because of my past. Why should I be ashamed of it?

There’s a fantastic moment in the piece where the conductor speaks to the audience through a megaphone. Did you ever imagine yourself doing that when you trained as a conductor?

No, of course not! But in a piece like this, if feels very natural for a conductor to do that. It was actually quite difficult, because I had to keep conducting at the same time. I had the megaphone in my hand, and when I turned to the audience they looked quite surprised! It was challenging, but also very big fun!

Many of the orchestra and the chorus on the recording would have grown up in East Germany, which was part of the communist block at that time. What were their feelings about it all?

It felt very natural for them, because they were part of this for many years. I was nicely surprised that I didn’t feel any sort of negative element that we’re putting this piece on or that we shouldn’t do it. Obviously East Germany had been going through what is considered a difficult period, and so on. But there was nothing like this. There was only a very happy and positive energy of having discovered something that they had not ever heard of or performed before, and probably would not ever hear again. There was a huge excitement, which was fantastic for me to feel.

Staatskapelle Weimar extra brass. Photo © Candy Welz

For you as conductor, what are the biggest challenges with the piece?

Just to make it work, really – all the elements –­ and to build the structure of a piece, which involves so many people. To find a very organic sort of sound and to make one movement flow into the other, that is probably the biggest challenge. I don’t think the piece is very difficult to conduct – it’s not particularly difficult – but it just needs really careful balancing.

Yes, you wouldn’t want your machine guns to be swamped…

[laughs] Yes, it looked like a real machine gun! We had to tell the audience – and the police – “please don’t run away!”

Finally, are there other pieces from that era that you might compare it with?

I don’t know of an equivalent work. To me, this piece really stands alone somehow. There were a lot of choral pieces written during Soviet time, but this is something absolutely overwhelming. I can’t really compare it with anything else.


Kirill Karabits’ recording of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution is out now on Audite