Maria Aggressorovna

From The Wall Street Journal:

This may not be the timeliest moment to proclaim Russia’s creative superiority, but the musical facts are incontrovertible. Over the past century, Russia has produced most of the world’s outstanding pianists, from Rachmaninov and Horowitz at the dawn of recording to Daniil Trifonov and Igor Levit right now.

The Soviet system didn’t interrupt the flow of talent. If anything, it accelerated the production line. Any serious music lover can enumerate without difficulty three-dozen Soviet pianists who made important Beethoven recordings. At their head are Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels—one a bull-headed law unto himself, the other a petrified Party flag-bearer—and behind them are legions of relative unknowns who were denied the right to travel abroad or obtain a comfortable lifestyle.

Among them, two women—Maria Grinberg and Maria Yudina—deserve universal recognition, if much belated. Grinberg (1908-1978) was a committed Communist whose father was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1937. Thirty years later, when the Kremlin accused the Israeli state of aggression in the Six-Day War, Grinberg signed autographs with a caustic new patronymic: “Maria Aggressorovna.” The Kremlin could never control her.

Yudina (1899-1970) rejected communism from the outset, converting to Russian Orthodoxy in 1919. She risked life and liberty supporting exiled priests in Siberia, all the while maintaining an ambivalent relation to the official church and displaying a wild-haired defiance at the heart of Moscow’s concert life. She played Stravinsky when he was officially banned, as well as the music of the mystical Leningrad recluse Galina Ustvolskaya. In Elizabeth Wilson’s “Playing With Fire,” the first English-language biography of Yudina, there is a fabulous 1962 photograph of the pianist in a scruffy raincoat and uncombed hair facing down the manicured Tikhon Khrennikov, a Stalinist apparatchik who ruled the lives of Soviet composers for half a century. Yudina was not afraid.

Lest anyone be tempted to buy the book under false pretences, Ms. Wilson—the cellist-daughter of a 1960s British ambassador to Moscow—is quick to debunk the only story about Yudina that anyone knows outside Russia. It appeared in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony(1979), a bestselling account that was published as the smuggled-out memoirs of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who had died in 1975.

According to Shostakovich (in Mr. Volkov’s account), Stalin, upon hearing Yudina play a Mozart concerto (K.488) one night on the radio, asked for a recording of it. There was none, so his minions hustled Yudina, an orchestra and three frightened conductors into a studio in the dead of night and pressed a single copy for the Great Leader. Stalin, delighted, sent Yudina a prize of 20,000 rubles. She wrote back saying that she was giving the money to her church and would pray to the Lord to pardon “your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you.” The story forms the opening scene of Armando Iannucci’s quirky 2017 film, “The Death of Stalin.” According to a further legend, Yudina’s Mozart record was found spinning on the turntable beside Stalin’s lifeless body.

During the 1917 Revolution, Yudina rejoiced at the fall of the czar, joined a “people’s militia” and formed a group to run a play-school for working-class children. But a short trip home plunged her into an intoxicating circle of Hegelian and Kantian philosophers who, mostly Jewish converts to Christianity, drew her toward the Russian Orthodox Church. Yudina’s atheist father was outraged, but she was helplessly in love with her mentor, a textual critic by the name of Lev Pumpyansky, the first of a string of unsuitable, ephemeral lovers. When she declined his offer of marriage, Pumpyansky set out to assault her father, who threw him down the stairs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be free, but PG doesn’t know if the link degrades over time.)

2 thoughts on “Maria Aggressorovna”

  1. “Over the past century, Russia has produced most of the world’s outstanding pianists, from Rachmaninov and Horowitz at the dawn of recording to Daniil Trifonov and Igor Levit right now.”

    Uh, no, the truth is: Russia has produced many outstanding pianists (and its percentage has gone down as classical music has spread in China and South Korea).

  2. Respectfully, many of those acclaimed “Russian pianists” were part of the “Russian Empire” (or “Soviet Empire”)… but not, themselves, Russians. Rachmaninov, for example, fled the Soviet Union because his family had been aristocracy from Moldova.

    In the world of classical music, tribal identification is even more insanely Montagus and Capulets/Sharks and Jets than in popular music, and nobody who hasn’t suffered through them wants to “experience” auditions. Not even — or perhaps especially, given the various subterfuges — “blind” auditions that are ordinarily anything but that.

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