The two documentaries on this disc paint a vivid picture of musical life during the 70 years of dictatorial Soviet rule. “The Red Baton” focuses on the doctrine of Socialist Realism to which artists in all media were expected to adhere. For musicians, this meant creating works that did not exhibit so-called “formalist” elements such as dissonance and atonality. Those who deviated from the party line were dealt with harshly, including public censure by the government-controlled media and the banning of many of their works. The film relies on the oral history of two key personalities who lived through many of the events: famed conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and viola player Rudolf Barshai. Much of their testimony revolves around the notorious 1948 Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers, during which Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and others were savagely denounced by Tikhon Khrennikov, leader of the composers union and widely perceived as a lackey of the ruling elite. Their remembrances are moving and tragic, although Rozhdestvensky also finds a measure of black humor in the hypocrisy and madness of the era. It’s a fascinating document, but at 55 minutes is too short to really do justice to its subject, and doesn’t account for the staggering amount of brilliant work achieved during those dark decades. The second film, “Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: Conductor or Conjuror?” is a less political, more personal look at the day-to-day business of music making, as the famous maestro is shown in his varied roles as conductor, performer, philosopher and mentor. Less ambitious than “The Red Baton,” it’s ultimately a more successful documentary, enlivened by Rozhdestvensky’s down to earth charisma and sardonic humor.
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