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By John Helmer, Moscow

Maria Yudina (lead image) is one of the great Russian pianists. She was not, however, one who appealed to all tastes in her lifetime, 1899 to 1970.

In a new biography of her by Elizabeth Wilson, Yudina’s belief that music represents Orthodox Christian faith is made out to be so heroic, the art of the piano is diminished — and Yudina’s reputation consigned again to minority and obscurity. Russian classical music and its performers, who have not recovered from the Yeltsin period and now from the renewal of the German-American war, deserve better than Wilson’s propaganda tune.

Wilson is the daughter of British ambassador to Moscow in 1968-71, Sir Duncan Wilson.   Both he and she were close to Mstislav Rostropovich, the turncoat cellist  who assisted the CIA in its campaigns against Moscow,  and was richly rewarded when he led the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington (to the anger  of the American orchestra players).   Rostropovich’s greed exceeded even what, much later,  in negotiations for a fee to perform in Samara, the aluminium oligarch Oleg Deripaska called greed.  

Left: the book short-listed by the London propaganda organisation Pushkin House for its book prize for this year.  Wilson plays this to the Prize Committee: “The war with Ukraine gave me a big shock: how was it possible to return to the kind of repressions of the worst Stalinist period? But looking at the methods used today, it really doesn’t surprise me.” Right: Elizabeth Wilson propagandising for Rostropovich.

It is believed in the west that Yudina bravely confronted Stalin after he had reportedly commissioned a special performance from her of Mozart’s A major piano concerto. The story has been amplified until in some versions, it has become the last recording Stalin heard before his fatal stroke in March 1953, making Yudina “the pianist who killed Stalin”.  

John Lloyd has repeated this story as “partly true” in a review of Wilson’s book.  Lloyd was a Financial Times journalist in Moscow who specialized in headline mistakes of wishful reporting when he was married to a lawyer promoting the privatization schemes of Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. In fact, the story is totally false – as Wilson’s six-page appendix documents but Lloyd omits to mention, partly as well as entirely.    Stalin, according to Wilson’s appendix, had nothing to say about Yudina, and left no record of ever having listened to her playing the piano. In the history of Stalin’s library there is no trace of Yudina.  But like Wilson, Lloyd can’t avoid playing the propaganda tune synonymising Yudina’s Christianity with Russian patriotism and with the anti-regime Russians of Pushkin House  to be Yudina’s “ cultural descendants stand[ing] now, as a brave and usually doomed few did in Yudina’s time, in opposition to the barbarity of its present ruling class.”  

The Ezhi monument on Leningradsky Prospect – the enlarged tank traps mark the forward line of the German forces attacking Moscow in 1941. Elizabeth Wilson describes them as “a memorial of heavy crosses representing a giant tank trap”. No Russian, not even a priest, attributes such religious symbolism to this memorial.

As Wilson prepared her life of Yudina for the current war period, she couldn’t help beating Yudina’s theocratic drum, transposing it from her symbolification of Prokofiev’s War and Peace    “ ‘heralding the triumph of Good  that stands firm and resists every kind of trial!…And to create something like this  NOW!’. Her prediction of the power of GOOD would have carried less force had she known what was awaiting Prokofiev  — and others of the Soviet intelligentsia during the last repressive period of Stalin’s rule.”

This is evangelism — something Yudina never stopped trying on her family and friends. Her Jewish father detested her Christian religiosity, and made his views known to her demonstratively; he once threw an ink pot at her bedroom wall full of icon images.  Yudina even baptised her sister Anna, who was dying at the time and in no position to resist. She also tried to convert Jewish friends. Wilson has written an entire biography with the same proselytising purpose. There’s a difference between Yudina and Wilson – Yudina intended to do no harm.

Between Yudina’s church, Rostropovich’s worship of Mammon, and Wilson’s anti-communism there’s no need to choose, nor to read. Go instead to the music:  

Here is Yudina playing from volume I of Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier.   Now Yudina’s symbolifications: “The opening C major Prelude and Fugue [w]was the Annunciation or the creation of Man, while the second (C minor) represents Evil. Naturally [sic – Wilson] the famous fourth pair in C sharp minor…represents the Crucifixus. Passing through a group of evangelical subjects, she defines the concluding B minor Prelude and fugue as the Pieta.

And now Glenn Gould without words:

For the difference between Gould and Rostropovich, read this.

Yudina took her Chopin to Warsaw in 1953. “In Yudina’s view,” Wilson reports, “Chopin’s Preludes were still misunderstood; they carried a philosophical, revelatory – ‘Death and Resurrection’… The second seond, A minor Prelude was ‘An Empty Chapel – a number condition of the spirit’, the third OPrelude, in G major, was ‘A Burbling stream. Patterns of birds in flight against an evening sky.’ And number seventeen in A flat represented no less than Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral.”  

For the music without the programme, listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s performance.

In July 1947 Yudina recorded Schubert’s B flat major sonata D960.  According to Wilson, “Yudina, unlike Richter, does not stick to one tempo, and after the initial statement of the theme she gives way to agitation, pushing the tempo forward dramatically. Despite this, her emotional reading retains an imperious logic and overall unity. The development in particular seems to contemplate the doomed narrative of Schubert’s own tragic fate, evident in the recurrent motif of a bar of threatening bass trills. Even more heart-rending is the second movement Andante Sostenuto, where Yudina takes a new temp in the middle section…None of these fluctuations of tempo are indicated by the composer.”

Now, for comparison, listen to Richter play the same piece.     

Yudina’s version runs for 41:33 minutes, and so it’s much faster than Richter’s at 46:29. Yudina’s version has been listened to by 55,000 people. Richter’s, by contrast, has an audience of almost 3 million. There are many differences which these magnitudes reveal on the part of sophisticated audiences listening to a difficult work. But concocting words instead of the music as Yudina did often herself, and Wilson repeats and embroiders, this is symbolification — and it’s nonsense. The words of Glenn Gould — the greatest Canadian in memory – refer to the music, and how to listen to it. “I had never had the patience for Schubert,” Gould said, “and what I construed as his repetitious and colossal rhetoric: but when I witnessed Richter in performance of the already-lengthy B-flat Sonata, played even more slowly, I realized – in a trance, a hypnotic state – that my prejudice against Schubert’s repetitions had transformed to see something thoroughly organic. Richter came to represent that artist who creates the illusion that he serves as a ‘conduit’ for the composer as he relates directly to the listener.”

There are some oddities in Wilson’s book. She acknowledges that Yudina was never capable of composing her own cadenzas; she used to ask her friends and colleagues to find them for her. Yudina’s improvisations, however, consisted of false notes, larger mistakes, and grand misreadings of composer scores. “One imagines,” is Wilson’s excuse, “from sheer cerebral fatigue”.

Wilson, once a student at the Moscow Conservatoire herself, misses entirely the atmosphere of the institution – the egotistical competitiveness, status envy, and class pretentiousness which marked the Conservatoire before 1917 and continued throughout the Soviet period, long past Yudina and Rostropovich. Wilson re-captures the beautiful moments of anticipation, however, when “the hall was full to bursting” (January 5, 1930), “crammed full” (November 30, 1930). Not even the Yeltsin-Rostropovich duet managed to destroy that.  

Yudina died on November 19, 1970. Wilson then buries Yudina in her Vvedinskoye Cemetery grave, “at rest in an undisturbed eternity, close to her vision of God’s paradise by shimmering trills and golden , filigree embellishments.”  This is Wilson’s nonsense (note the status symbols).  

For symbolification of what became of Russian classical music after Yudina, when Yeltsin was  the tone-deaf president and Rostropovich the Stalin organ of the Conservatoire apparatchiki,  and also how the survival of the classical music compares with its British and American counterparts, Wilson is altogether silent. Read that tale here  and here  and here and here .

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