NoŽlle MANN (From an interview with Sir Edward, 30 May 2000)
After about eight years at Covent Garden, Edward Downes became Georg Solti’s assistant and in 1969, Musical Director of the Australian Opera. During the five years he devoted to the Australian Opera, he remained a regular guest conductor at the Royal Opera House and in the early 1990s, he was asked to be Associate Musical Director with Bernard Haitink.
Opera nevertheless was not all for Edward Downes who also performed extensively with symphonic orchestras: “I was the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, and for about thirty years I’ve been associated with the BBC Philharmonic and was their Musical Director for many of those years. And it is with these orchestras that I played an enormous amount of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and Russian music in general.” His involvement with things Russian did not however start with Prokofiev, but with Russian literature which had captivated him, and with Shostakovich: “When I was a boy, I went past a public library on my way to school. I went in regularly and by the time I was about fourteen, I had read all Dostoievsky and Turgeniev. Russian literature was really close to my heart: War and Peace is one of my favourite novels. As for Shostakovich, he has been my home territory ever since I was a boy.”
So when did he discover Prokofiev? Surprisingly, later in his life: “Yes... a most interesting question because all the while I was a horn player from 1944 to 1947, Prokofiev was never on any of the programmes I took part in. The first time I was really aware of Prokofiev - and this hit me - was in 1956 when the Bolshoi ballet came to London for the first time. They did Romeo and Juliet with Ulanova. I went to every performance, and every rehearsal too. I was absolutely amazed by it and I thought: this is my world!” The first Prokofiev score he conducted in the 1960s was the little-played ballet, Le Fils Prodigue, and from then on Prokofiev was to play a major in his work:
“When I went to Manchester, to the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic), I had the opportunity to do as much Prokofiev as I wanted because I was free to choose what I did. At that time, the only symphonies of Prokofiev that one heard were the First or the Fifth, whereas I was able to do them all! I also did a Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in the early 1980s, and in two weekends, we performed all of his symphonies and concertos.”
Edward Downes’ passion for Prokofiev’s music was fired and, in order to perform more of his works, the conductor became translator and orchestrator. Inspired by Russian literature and in order to acquire reading proficiency, the young man had taught himself the language around 1953. This was to prove useful many years later when he first became involved with War and Peace:
“In 1967 Lord Harewood, then Director of the Leeds Festival, wanted to do a big choral work to open the festival and I proposed War and Peace. He looked at me as though I was mad, and he said that it had never been done in the West like this. Furthermore we couldn’t do it in Russian because the festival chorus had never sung in Russian. So I said: “Right, I’ll translate it!”; and I spent about six months translating War and Peace. I suggested that we reduce the opera score to three hours with one interval, which meant that we could do most of it in concert. We did, and it was an enormous success in Leeds.”
Soon after in 1969 Edward Downes was appointed musical director of the Australian Opera and he opened the new Sydney Opera House in 1972, with War and Peace. Sydney’s epic production of War and Peace, directed by Sam Wanamaker, was televised and broadcast all over the world. The opera was enthusiastically received and there is no doubt that this highly publicised production, along with that of the English National Opera in 1972 (directed by Colin Graham and conducted by David Lloyd-Jones), played a major role in giving this work a long overdue place among the major operas of the twentieth century.
A year or two later Oleg Prokofiev, who had moved to Britain in 1971, introduced his mother Lina to Edward Downes and their encounter proved to be of vital importance for both of them. Having spent nearly forty years in the Soviet Union, eight of them imprisoned in Siberia, Lina was finally allowed to return to the West in 1974. Her first task was to track down and recover all the personal effects which Prokofiev had left behind in the course of his nomadic life in the West. Before returning to the Soviet Union in 1936, Prokofiev deposited a trunk at his Parisian publishers, Edition Russe de Musique, containing among other things the manuscript of Maddalena, a one-act opera he had written in 1911 while a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev had hoped Maddalena might be performed by students at the Conservatory, but the work had been rejected because it was thought too difficult to sing. When he left Russia in 1918, Prokofiev took the manuscript with him; he had orchestrated the first scene only and it was in this unfinished state that Lina recovered the manuscript. She consulted Edward Downes to see if the work could be performed:
“I suggested that if the last three scenes could be orchestrated in the style that Prokofiev had used in the first, it would be perfectly possible to perform it. She asked me to undertake the orchestration which took eight months. As I was conducting all over the world at that time, I took the manuscript with me to places like Australia and Venezuela and I orchestrated and did some of the translation during my travelling. The first performance took place in 1978 with the BBC Northern Symphony in Manchester, at the Royal Northern College of Music. We performed it twice in one day; first in Russian in the morning and after lunch we did it again with the same cast, but this time in English.”
That performance along with Boosey & Hawkes’ publication of the vocal score put Maddalena on the map. It was first staged in Graz, Austria in 1981 and has since been performed in other countries, including Russia.
Next came the Eugene Onegin discovery. In 1936, Prokofiev had written the music for a new production of the Pushkin play. Due to be produced by Alexander Tairov, Director of the Moscow Chamber Theatre, the work was suddenly removed from schedule following administrative and political disagreements. Never a man to let his music go to waste, Prokofiev used various sections from Eugene Onegin in subsequent works, including War and Peace and Cinderella. The original incidental music however remained in manuscript form, gathering dust in a Moscow archive, until Elizabeth Dattel, a musicologist from Leningrad, reconstructed the work and had it published in 1973. As soon as the score came out Edward Downes acquired it. Even though a few numbers were missing from the original work, the music was eminently performable and when the BBC invited Sir Edward to record it, he accepted with alacrity. What happened next belongs to the world of detective stories, as Sir Edward recalls:
“About ten days before the recording was due to take place in Manchester, and as the rehearsals were well on their way, I saw an advertisement on the Times Literary Supplement. Christie’s was selling a large number of letters between Sergei and Lina Prokofiev and some manuscripts. I informed immediately Mrs Prokofiev who was then in Paris, as I knew she would never sell any of her husband’s private effects! She arrived on the same day and stopped the sale. Among the documents there was a pile of music sheets, and no one knew what they were. Lina asked me to look at them and, as I went through them, it dawned on me that these were the actual missing pieces from Eugene Onegin. They were not fully orchestrated, and this was about ten days before the recording was due! So I orchestrated them and we were able to perform the complete work. This was an extraordinary adventure! After the broadcast, the BBC were inundated with letters and they had to repeat it within about a month. And then we recorded it for Chandos.” This was in 1994.
Two years before, Sir Edward (knighted in 1991) had achieved another major undertaking, bringing The Fiery Angel to Britain, another Prokofiev opera which, although a masterpiece, had rarely been performed in that country. In his early days at Covent Garden, he had met Lord Harewood who had a large collection of LPs, many of which he lent Edward Downes over the years. Among them was a French recording of The Fiery Angel and, as Sir Edward recalls, it was yet another “coup de coeur”: It was not complete, it was in French and it absolutely hooked me. Largely because of Briusov and Russian symbolism. And I thought this was absolutely wonderful. I tried to persuade Covent Garden to do it but they resisted. I even started to translate it. Eventually Paul Findley came to Covent Garden and, as he had an open mind on things, I persuaded him to let us do it. At the same time, Valery Gergiev was preparing it at the Kirov and we got together. I had first of all to correct the full score against the manuscript. Then I needed to find somebody who could sing Renata, so I had Valery Gergiev to line up some candidates for me. And I went over to Leningrad, to audition three singers that he sent for me. Two of them were fabulous and we brought them to England; one was Galina Gorchakova - one of the greatest voices of our time - and the other Elena Prokina. We first did The Fiery Angel at a Promenade concert, and then at Covent Garden in 1992, where it was an amazing success.”
Today, Sir Edward is still determined to help the western public discover more little known, or unknown, works by Prokofiev, even though he is suffering from severe eyesight problems which force him to memorise every work he conducts, be it operas or symphonic works: “You must realise now that I can scarcely read. So it’s very doubtful if I can ever do any unknown Prokofiev because it would take me months to memorise it.”
But his face lightens up and a huge smile appears as he mentions yet another of his inspired projects: “Providing my eyes remain stable, however, I should like to work out a proper version of Egyptian Nights, with the original smaller orchestra and with speakers and actors.”
Sir Edward is a charismatic person who is always looking ahead, in search for new music to bring to audiences. When asked what he would most wish the Association to achieve in the next few years, he declared: “The thing that I would love would be for all sorts of people from all over the world to realise that there was a great deal more to Prokofiev than just the Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf. And for people to want to listen or see Le Fils Prodigue, for example... with all its wonderful music. Or the Third and Fourth symphonies... then I think that we would have achieved something!”
In the Beginning