Chapter Six


The "Thaw" (1954—1964)


Soon after the death of Josef Stalin on March 5, 1953, an entirely new period started in Soviet society and also in the arts. Within one year, a large number of political prisoners were released from the Gulag prison camps, among them Alexander Veprik, who had been imprisoned since 1950. The change to more freedom gradually became more noticeable in the overall atmosphere as the Soviet Union began to distance itself from the viciousness of the Stalin era, especially in the last years of the tyrannical regime. Nikita Khrushchev brought up the process of de-Stalinizing officially in a speech in 1956. This period has since then been called the “Thaw” (Ottepel), ending with Leonid Brezhnev’s becoming general secretary in the mid-1960s (Redepenning 2008, 537).

Especially important in this period were visits of orchestras, musicians and composers from the West (Schmelz 2009, 54–66). After the closed decades under the Stalin regime, new inspirations, updates on contemporary musical tendencies and new, valuable contacts were highly welcome (Maistrenko 2017, 245). Among Russian clarinetists, the impact of meeting colleagues, for example from the Philadelphia orchestra performing under Leopold Stokowski in Moscow 1958, was far-reaching. Discussions on playing style continued in teaching situations and among professionals for a long time. Special attention went to the material which the American players used, such as instruments, mouthpieces and reeds. In Russia, the German clarinet system was still in use in the 1950s. In the US and most of Western Europe (except Germany, Austria and parts of the Netherlands), clarinetists had switched to the French Boehm-system decades before. The first Russian players changed to French system clarinets in the end of the 1950s. Clarinetist Ivan Mozgovenko remembers in an interview that this change was not self-evident: there were no fingering charts for the new clarinets and the players had to adopt reeds and mouthpieces themselves to make them suitable for the French system (Mozgovenko 2005, 288). One special event was also the concert tour of clarinetist Benny Goodman and his ensemble to the Soviet Union in 1962. He played over 30 concerts in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Sochi and Tashkent. According to oral interviews, Goodman donated two of his French system clarinets to Soviet players during his visit (Mozgovenko 2005, 290).

Concerning the clarinet repertoire, a few main tendencies stand out in the decade of the “Thaw”. First, the decreasing number of new clarinet concertos, secondly, a name change in works for clarinet and piano, and finally, the emergence of some very fine chamber music compositions. Propaganda for new Soviet music became a prevailing trend (Hakobian 2017, 200). Music competitions for instrumentalists, clarinet and wind ensembles again took an important role after stopping during the war and the last years of the Stalin regime. One of the works from this period which demands more recognition in the clarinet repertoire today is the Clarinet Concerto by Boris Tchaikovsky from 1957. This Concerto captivates through its melodic beauty; it is virtuoso without being “showy”. The sonority is transparent throughout the entire work, due to the delicate instrumentation of strings and a few, selected winds. Other clarinet concertos from this time were written by Manevich, Izrailevich and, in Estonia, by Kareva. 

In works for clarinet and piano from this decade, the use of national titles disappears almost entirely. Instead, neutral titles such as “Pieces” appear frequently in works by Senderey, Sirotkin, Karamanov, Pustylnik, Zveryev, and Agafonnikov. The number of Sonatas and Sonatinas for clarinet and piano gradually increased. The Sonatina and Sonata No.1 by Nikolay Rakov are best known. In 1961 Yulian Krein, son of Grigory Krein, composed a charming, somewhat French-style Clarinet Sonata which deserves more attention. Other Sonatinas and Sonatas were written by Blok, Lobel, Botyarov, Podkovyrov and Estonian Ojapää.

In the field of chamber music with clarinet from this period, the Clarinet Quintet by Aleksandr Lokshin is a genuine highlight, though the composer was terribly neglected during his lifetime (see 6.1). This rare gem of the clarinet repertoire is nowadays, unfortunately, available only as a score without playing parts, which appears unjust in relation to the high musical value of this composition. Furthermore, the popularity of woodwind ensembles continued during the period of the “Thaw”. This can be seen in wind quintets by Baltic composers such as Pärt, Kreek, Otsa, Aarne and Mägi. Kancheli, Falik, Arutyunian, Slonimsky and others also composed woodwind ensemble works in this period.