Andrey USTINOV: Polish soul in Russia

Polish soul in Russia

Photo of Andriej USTINOV


Chairman of the Council of the Music Competitions Association of Russia and editor-in-chief of the journal Muzykalnoe obozrenie.


other articles by this author

Neither the Christian philosopher Bach, nor the radiant genius Mozart, nor the eccentric mystic and fantasist Schumann, nor the arch-virtuoso Liszt held such sway over the minds and hearts of Russian musicians, pianists, and intelligent, well-educated people, as the piano virtuoso who came from Poland. The fiery revolutionist Beethoven might have had a similar kind of influence, but the lyricist Fryderyk Chopin was unequalled.

.Chopin’s melodies resonate beautifully with the stirrings of the Russian soul – romantic and passionate, singing and dancing, trembling and dreaming. “Chopin is to music what Puszkin is to poetry,” said Leo Tolstoy who loved Chopin dearly (the estate at Yasnaya Polyana holds collected works of the composer).  

“Again Chopin—not seeking gain / But growing wings while on the wing / Constructs an exit all his own / From likelihood to certainty, / Chopin did that as well / Working miracles of manors, parks, groves and graves / In his etudes,” wrote Boris Pasternak about his idol.

The music of the Pole Fryderyk Chopin became as much a showpiece and symbol of Russian culture and piano tradition as the music of Tchaikovsky, Scriabin or Rachmaninoff. It has also had a major impact of how Russian culture developed. The phenomenon known as “Russian Chopin” dates back to the very beginnings of the Russian piano school which gave the world scores of astounding performers of Fryderyk Chopin’s music: from Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Igumnov, Neuhaus, Oborin and Gilels to Pletnev, Sultanov, Lugansky and Trifonov…

Held in Warsaw for nearly 100 years, the Chopin Competition has almost become part of the Russian national heritage too, second only to the Pyotr Tchaikovsky Competition in terms of prestige. Every prize won at the Chopin and Tchaikovsky competitions – especially the first prize – is not just an achievement, but a great honour, a mark of fame and a guarantee that the name of the winner will go down in history.

In the past, almost every Chopin Competition brought triumphs for Soviet and Russian performers and their teachers. First prizes were awarded to Lew Oborin (1927), Yakov Zak (1937), Bella Davidovich (1949), Stanislav Bunin (1985), and Yulianna Avdeeva (2010).

There has probably been no other competition with so many Russians laureates – Lev Oborin, Grigory Ginzburg (1927), Abram Lufer, Leonid Sagalov (1932), Rosa Tamarkina (1937), Georgi Muravlov, Yevgeny Malinin, Tamara Guseva, Victor Merzhanov (1949), Vladimir Ashkenazy, Naum Shtarkman, Dmitry Paperno, Dmitri Sakharov (1955), Irina Zaritskaya, Zinaida Ignatyeva, Valery Kastelsky (1960), Natalia Gavrilova (1970), Dina Joffe, Tatiana Fedkina, Pavel Gililov (1975), Tatiana Shebanova, Arutyun Papazyan, Irina Pietrova (Chukovsky) (1980), Tatiana Pikayzen (1985), Margarita Shevchenko, Anna Malikova (1990), Alexei Sultanov, Rem Urasin (1995), Alexander Kobrin (2000), Lukas Geniušas, Daniil Trifonov (2010). For almost all of these musicians the Chopin Competition was the first in a line of spectacular performance and teaching successes. Many of them emigrated from the USSR or Russia to continue their careers in Europe and the USA. Such was the case of V. Ashkenazy, D. Paperno, I. Zaritskaya, D. Joffe, P. Gililov, J. Malinin, T. Fedkina, T. Pikayzen, T. Shebanova, M. Shevchenko, A. Malikova, and A. Sultanov.

Lev Oborin – the first winner

.Russian, or rather Soviet, pianists won prizes already at the first competition in 1927. It was the first music competition held in Europe that had just emerged from the First World War. Soviet musicians were also invited.

On 11 December 1926, the Main University Directorate of the State Committee on the Arts approved the list of pianists to participate in the Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw: it included recent graduates from the Moscow Conservatory – 22-year-old Grigory Ginzburg, 23-year-old Yuri Briushkov, and 19-year-old Lev Oborin – as well as musicians from Leningrad – 20-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich and 24-year-old Yosif Shvarts.

There was scarcely any time for preparation. In his memoirs, Oborin wrote that his mentor – Konstantin Igumnov, professor at the Moscow Conservatory – showed him the programme three weeks before the starting date of the competition. According to Oborin, his repertoire covered about one third of the required programme. It seemed that taking part in the competition made no sense and there was no chance of success. All the same, Igumnov insisted that they should try and he was joined in this by Boleslav Yavorsky, a pianist, pedagogue and music theoretician whose opinions counted a lot for Oborin.

Ten days before the competition, the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment of the Russian Federal Socialist Soviet Republic ordered that the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory be made available for participants to practice the competition programme. The final hearings, or the “concert of five musicians” as the Soviet press later called it, happened on 14 January 1927. One more concert took place on 16 January at the State Academy of Art Sciences. Although the five pianists performed well, the group sent to Warsaw on 22 January 1927 eventually included only four outstanding names: Oborin, Briushkov, Ginzburg, Shostakovich (for some reason Shvarts did not go).

Competition participants were hosted by Warsaw families who were able to provide the right conditions for rehearsals. As a result of a draw, Oborin played on the second day of the competition, on the 24th of January, Briushkov on the 25th, Ginzburg on the 26th and Shostakovich on the 27th. All four made it to the finals. Soviet newspapers heralded the presence of Soviet pianists “among the best.”  Before the finals, however, Briushkov bruised his finger and “only three were left.”

The finalists were required to play two parts from any of Chopin’s piano concertos: either first and second or second and third. In her book Lev Oborin the musicologist Sofia Chentova (Leningrad, ed. Muzyka, 1964) wrote that the pianists “performed the concert with the orchestra without a single rehearsal.” Oborin chose Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Ginzburg and Shostakovich – Concerto No. 1.

In the end, to quote the jury’s chairman, the composer Witold Maliszewski, “with a heavy heart, the jury did not award the first prize to a Pole” (quotation from S. Chentowa’s book). The first prize and the award of five thousand zlotys from Ignacy Mościcki, President of the Republic of Poland, went to Lev Oborin. Grigory Ginzburg won the fourth prize while Dmitri Shostakovich and Yuri Briushkov were given honorary diplomas.

The Soviet press was triumphant. The cartoonist and “one-man band” Boris Yefimov, who was highly appreciated by Stalin, summed up the competition in the drawing he made for the Izvestia newspaper – Oborin holds the winner’s diploma while Churchill clutches his head…

Oborin recalled that, after the competition, he was dubbed a Chopin player, which initially surprised and gladdened him, but then made him protest as it seemed he was being pigeonholed. He said that, before going to the competition, he had not been preoccupied with Chopin more than he was with other composers. A genuine closeness to Chopin came later. Oborin said that, when this happened, he wanted not only to perform Chopin in public, but also “talk to Chopin” and be intimate with his music.

In his book Dance. Thought. Time. the ballet dancer Asaf Messererrecounts a funny episode. In the autumn of 1929, Messerer considered staging Prokofiev’s ballet The Steel Step and decided to seek V. Meyerhold’s advice: 

“As agreed with Meyerhold, I came to his apartment on Bryusov Lane (currently Nezhdanova Street). He received me in a large room, apparently meant for guests, with old furniture and a grand piano inside. Zinaida Nikolayevna Reich made tea and left the room not to disturb us. Shortly afterwards, Lev Oborin arrived. He had recently won the first prize in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and you could tell he was a rising star by the way he carried himself. I already knew Oborin a little. We performed some concerts together. He played a few pieces, including Chopin’s Waltz No. 7. I remember I asked him why he played it so fast.

“We dance it slower in our ballet.”

“Well, you dance it wrong,” Lev Nikolayevich protested.

“But this is how Fokin staged it,” I said.

“Fokin staged it wrong,” retorted Oborin. “Chopin’s tempo is faster. You need to dance it like that.”

“So many flashes in the life of every performing pianist,” such was Oborin’s poetic and at the same time modest comment on his life after winning the competition. Scores of solo concerts and performances with an orchestra. Duets with David Oistrakh, Yehud Menuhin and George Enescu. A trio with David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky that lasted over twenty years. Lectures in the Moscow Conservatory (piano and chamber ensembles) for over forty years – his students included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikhail Voskresensky, Boris Tchaikovsky (who devoted himself to composing), Arkady Sevidov and the future great conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky who performed Oborin’s Fantastic Scherzo for symphonic orchestra on the festival held to mark the 100th anniversary of the latter’s birth (11 September – 25 December 2007).

Not many people know that Lev Oborin was also a composer (even though we wrote little) and that it was the creation of music that he considered to be his true profession.

However, fate had other designs for him.

Dmitri Shostakovich: “I played very well”

.The life of Dmitri Shostakovich after the competition turned out differently than might have been expected. In 1925, he graduated from the Piano Faculty at the Leningrad Conservatory (where he studied under Prof Lev Nikolaev) and performed successfully as a pianist in the mid 1920s; at the time he found himself at the crossroads and there was a moment when he thought the career of a pianist was more appealing than that of a composer.

In his letter to Boleslav Yavorsky from 24 December, he wrote about his preparations for the competition: “I have already mastered two parts of the Concerto in E minor, Ballade No. 3, Mazurka in H minor and two nocturnes. I still need to master the remaining third part and two (cursed) preludes (F sharp minor and B minor) as well as a few etudes.”

On 14 January 1927, Shostakovich took part in the concert of Soviet competition participants in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

During the drawing of lots, he was assigned number 30 (there were 32 participants in total). On 23 January, he was present at the inauguration of the competition but had to leave the hall of the Warsaw Philharmonic due to early symptoms of appendicitis.

“Yesterday I was slightly “bothered” by my stomach, but was taken immediately to the embassy, a doctor was called, I was given Inozemcov’s drops and everything was all right,” he wrote to his mother in what was then Leningrad.

In his letter to B. Javorsky, however, he gave an incomparably more dramatic account of the events:

“I woke up in the morning with a strong ache in the abdomen. Even so I went to the inauguration ceremony. During someone’s passionate speech the pain intensified so much that I ran home, undressed and lay down. Pains – crescendo. […] After I lay for about 2 hours, I started to get dressed with a strong resolve to send someone for castor oil. As I was pulling up my trousers, there was a knock on the door and Popov entered. Imagine! None of my dear friends thought about checking up on me, but Popov came running in. […] He took me to the Official Representation – the apartment of Comrade Kenig, President of the Local Committee. I am suffering unbelievably. Kening and his wife put me to bed immediately and called a doctor.  The doctor comes, feels my abdomen, looks at my tongue, takes temperature and announces: appendicitis! Of course… The doctor leaves, prescribing medicines. My abdomen started aching for good. The doctor brings pills in half an hour and, 3 minutes after taking them, I vomit. Comrade Kenig says that it is good and that I should feel better in a moment. He gave me some water to drink – I threw up again. I vomited 6–7 times. I still didn’t get any better. It went from worse to worse. Finally the doctor arrives the second time. […] Suddenly, I start to cry. I keep crying all the time. Everyone tries to soothe me etc. Popov puts a compress on my abdomen and I calm down a bit. Today, I cannot but remember these events with tremendous emotion. It’s so endearing how well they took care of me! Then my dear friends come to visit. They enter – and I wail again.”

In spite of his bad physical condition, Shostakovich did not spare himself. This is how he described his performance to his mother:

“I started with the polonaise. […] People clapped very nicely. I had to bow. They applauded me after every nocturne. The applause was so long that I was forced to get up and bow again. After the Prelude in F sharp minor the ovation was really good just like after B minor. I had to stand up and bow after each piece. […] During the Etude in A flat major they started clapping after the arpeggio, andvery loudly too. I think I managed to make the right impression on them with that etude. I got up after the C sharp minor and bowed twice. After the ballade they clapped quite enthusiastically. […] In the artists’ room everyone praised me, but I quickly ran away. […] the competition ends tomorrow. […] I am satisfied with myself. I played forgetting the world around me – as if in a trance, you might say.”

Shostakovich was one of the 8 pianists who qualified to the finals where he played Chopin’s Concerto No. 1. He was given an honorary diploma (like Yuri Briushkov) and, as M. Druskin recalls in his memoirs, “was crestfallen that he did not win a prize. I think he even had a grudge about it…”

On 1 February, Shostakovich wrote to his mother: “I was thrown overboard. I wasn’t bitter because I did my job. I played my programme very well and achieved a great success. […] My performance during the concerto was very good and I was the most successful of the other 8 participants. The success was even greater than the one in Moscow.” Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich also wrote that many people viewed him and Oborin as candidates for the first prize and that the final distribution of prizes left the audience astounded: when the chairman of the jury, W. Maliszewski, “forgot” to read his name, “one could hear shouts of >Shostakovich, Shostakovich< from the audience” and an ovation.

Under Meyerhold’s brand

.The young musicians got closer also because of their contacts with V. Meyerhold. As it has already been mentioned, Lev Oborin was almost a member of the great director’s household. Previously, almost two years before the meeting with A. Messerer at Meyerhold’s apartment on Bryusov Lane, the maser dedicated to Oborin the first version of Woe to Wit, a play he worked on at the turn of 1928 (the director’s intention was to make Chatskii a pianist who plays well-known, classic pieces all the time). At about that time (the end of 1927) Meyerhold also asked Shostakovich to work in his theatre.

“He called me (it was in Leningrad) and said: >Meyerhold speaking. I would like to see you. Come and visit me if you can. I’m at this and that number in this and that hotel<. Vsevolod Emilyevich and Zinaida Nikolayevna Reich gave me a very warm welcome. They asked me if I would like to work for the theatre. I said at once that I would like it very much. As it happened, I went to Moscow shortly thereafter and started working in the theatre’s music section,” recalled Dmitri Shostakovich in a conversation with L. Varpahovsky in 1927.

In January 1928, Shostakovich became the head of the music section in Meyerhold Theatre. As he did not have a flat in Moscow, he lived at Meyerhold’s place at Novinskiy Boulevard.

“The evenings were very interesting,” recalled Shostakovich. “I worked a lot at the time, writing my opera The Nose. I remember that there was once a big, dangerous fire in Vsevolod Emilyevich’s apartment at Novinskiy Boulevard. Vsevolod Emilyevich (I was not at home at the time) salvaged my manuscripts and returned them to me intact – this is how they survived. It was a great and beautiful thing he did for me. After all, there were objects in the apartment that were perhaps much more valuable to him than my manuscripts.”

One year later Meyerhold again invited Shostakovich to work with him, this time on the music for the play The Bedbug based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s comedy. “I would write the music, play it, and he would listen,” recalled Dmitri Dmitriyevich. “I remember that he very much liked the foxtrots of the three accordion players… I need to mention that the play itself was not to my liking. However, I respected Meyerhold’s authority so much that I could not have “my own opinion” on the matter. Naturally, I did not intend to argue with Vsevolod Emilyevich. If he decided to take the play on, it must have been worth it.”

The Bedbug with Shostakovich’s music was premiered on 13 February 1929. Shostakovich continued to perform as a pianist for a few more years – solo, in chamber ensembles and with orchestras (in particular, on 23 November 1929, he played Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra with G. Popov and the philharmonic orchestra conducted by F. Stiedry, and on 26 November, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 with the same orchestra under the baton of N. Malko, both performed in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic).

Gradually, however, he became completely absorbed by his composing activities, and having played a concert in Rostov-on-Don with the local symphony orchestra under F. Jakobson (he played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1) in February 1930, he ended his solo career and would later perform only his own works.

.The friendship between D. Shostakovich and L. Oborin, which began at the Chopin Competition, lasted for almost half a century (Oborin died at the beginning of 1974, Shostakovich surviving him by a year and a half).

Andrey Ustinov

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