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From 1925 Kharms began to attend ‘left’ poetry readings and other avant-garde activities. He gained membership of the Leningrad section of the All-Russian Union of Poets (from 1926), one of the many predecessors to the eventual Union of Soviet Writers, and published two poems in anthologies in 1926 and 1927. Almost unbelievably now, these were the only ‘adult’ works Kharms was able to publish in his lifetime. In 1927 he and a number of like-minded experimental writers, including his talented friend and close associate Aleksandr Vvedenskii and the major poet Nikolai Zabolotskii, formed the literary and artistic grouping OBERIU (the near-acronym of the ‘Association of Real Art’).
This short-lived movement, something resembling a union between Futurist aesthetics and Formalist approaches and considering itself a ‘left flank’ of the literary avant-garde, caused a minor sensation with a highly unconventional theatrical evening entitled ‘Tri levykh chasa’ (‘Three Left Hours’) in 1928. This included a performance of Kharms’s Kafkaesque absurdist drama Elizaveta Bam. The time for propagating experimental modernist art, however, in the aesthetically hardening Stalinist climate of the late 1920s was past. Hostile journalistic attention ensured the hurried disbandment of the OBERIU group, following a small number of further appearances.
Kharms and Vvedenskii withdrew into the realm of children’s literature, writing for the children’s publishing house Detgiz, known fondly as the ‘Marshak Academy’ (run by the redoubtable children’s writer, Samuil Marshak). By 1940 Kharms had published eleven children’s books and he contributed regularly to the magazines Ezh and Chizh. However, even in this field, anything out of the ordinary was not safe. Kharms, in his playful approach to children’s literature, used a number of OBERIU-type devices, already denounced earlier in a Leningrad paper as ‘reactionary sleight-of-hand’, and at the end of 1931 Kharms and Vvedenskii were arrested, imprisoned, and exiled, albeit fairly briefly, to Kursk: the times, in a punitive sense, being still then relatively moderate. Little literary employment was to be had thereafter; work at Detgiz was erratic and periods of near-starvation followed. Kharms and Vvedenskii (the latter had moved to the Ukraine in the mid-1930s) somehow survived the ‘great purges’ of the 1930s. However, the outbreak of War brought new dangers: Kharms was arrested in Leningrad in August 1941, while Vvedenskii’s arrest occurred the following month in Khar’kov. Vvedenskii died in December of that year and Kharms (it seems of starvation in the prison hospital) in February 1942. Both were later rehabilitated during the Khrushchev Thaw, but the great bulk of their adult writings had to await the Gorbachev period for publication in Russia.
Kharms was apparently charged with spreading defeatist propaganda: there is evidence that even at the time he managed to clear himself on this charge, possibly by feigning insanity. He had been a marked man since his first arrest in 1931 and was probably fortunate to escape disaster over a children’s poem in 1937, about a man who went out to buy tobacco and disappeared: ‘Iz doma vyshel chelovek’ (‘Out of a house walked a man’). A harmless eccentric litterateur Kharms may have been, but in the circumstances that was no protection.