True to the spirit

During the title scene of Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, the seventy-four-year-old Soviet leader, standing in his office at his dacha in Kuntsevo, is handed a gramophone recording, which he hastily puts on. Over the crackle of the disc, we hear the beginnings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 23 in A major, performed by the Soviet pianist Maria Yudina. The night before, Stalin had heard Yudina perform this on the radio; he enjoyed it so much, he demanded it be recorded so he could hear it again. A handwritten letter slips out of the disc jacket onto the floor, and Stalin picks it up. “I pray for your end and ask the Lord to forgive you”, the letter – written by Yudina herself – begins. At that moment, with the sound of Yudina’s inter–pretation of Mozart playing in the background, Stalin suffers a heart attack and drops to the floor.

It is a dramatic scene, but one that probably never happened. In Playing with Fire: The story of Maria Yudina, pianist in Stalin’s Russia, the first biography of Yudina written in English, the writer and cellist Elizabeth Wilson illuminates the life of one of twentieth-century Russia’s most brilliant pianists and uncompromising intellectuals. Through her meticulous research, Wilson disabuses us of the many legends that surround Yudina’s peculiar character: she was probably not Stalin’s favorite pianist, she did not send Stalin an angry letter, and she did not sleep in a coffin. (It was a bathtub.) But Yudina’s life was still a feast of the unlikely and the sensational. Against the backdrop of continuous Communist repressions, it is remarkable that this Jew turned Orthodox Christian survived the most oppressive years of Stalinism and avoided the imprisonment, exile or execution that felled so many of her contemporaries.

Yudina was born to a Jewish family in 1899 in Nevel, a town in the Pskov region. Her gift for music took her to St Petersburg and its conservatoire at the age of thirteen. She was only eighteen when the October Revolution of 1917 replaced the centuries-long system of imperial Russia with a radically transformed socialist state, and like many of her age she was swept up by revolutionary fever. “I too was given a loaded rifle and was taught how to use it”, Yudina wrote. “But the wretched thing went off by itself!” The bullet pierced four stores, but nobody was hurt. Details like this, both amusing and alarming, form the background to Yudina’s early Soviet life, when the landscape of intellectual possibility had not yet enforced morphed into the brutal of idealistic conformity.

Wilson, a former student of the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the author of books including an exhaustive biography of Shostakovich, provides vignettes of the influential thinkers and writers who shaped the early Soviet intelligentsia and became Yudina’s friends. It feels both surprising and familiar to meet so many known cultural figures, not as main characters, but in supporting roles: the writer and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, the painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin were all members of the philosophical circles in which Yudina moved.

Rightly, Yudina’s extraordinary musical performances brought her fame, but her many eccentricities also attracted ridicule. After receiving her fee at the end of concerts, she would often distribute the money among any members of the audience who came to the green room. “Money is to be used, to be spent”, she would say. On one occasion Yudina borrowed shoes for a concert, only to take them off while playing and leave them on stage under the stool when she finished.

The intellectual freedom of these early years did not last long, but Yudina, a disciple of philosophical exploration, never conformed to Soviet dogma. By 1920 the persecution of religion in the Soviet Union had already begun: monasteries were shut down and the church and the state were separated under Lenin’s orders. Yudina made it a rule not to talk about religion with her students at the Leningrad Conservatoire, but owned up to them when asked. In an obligatory questionnaire at the conservatory in 1925, Yudina wrote that while she agreed with many aspects of the Russian Communist Party, “I cannot join it because of my idealistic and religious views”.

As Stalinism entered its most repressive decade, Yudina, mocked as a “nun’s habit in the faculty” for her routine of always wearing a floor-length black dress, he was accused of religious fascism in a vicious news article in 1930 and dismissed from her teaching job at the Leningrad Conservatoire. This defense of her religious beliefs also cost her the right to ration cards: “effectively, the unemployed, priests and vagrants were all treated as pariahs, and had to buy food in open markets where it was sold at exorbitant prices”, Wilson tells us . In a scene that encapsulates the jarring contradictions contained within the Soviet system, Father Pavel Florensky, a noted electrical engineer and Orthodox priest who became Yudina’s lifelong friend, was eventually forced into working on plans to electrify the entire Soviet Union. “Father Pavel started his work as an electro-technician still wearing his priest’s cassock”, Wilson writes. A remarkable sight in such times.

Yudina’s unwavering devotion to her ideals was discernible as much in her spiritual life as in her musical one. Nowhere are her eccentric musical tenets so crystallized as in her interpretations of JS Bach and Beethoven. Her recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier eschews all expectations; where one might expect a harmonic climax to coincide with an increase in dynamics, there is often the inverse, the consequence, according to Wilson, of “an intellectual rigour combined with emotional impulsiveness”. Yudina was faithful to the spirit, rather than the letter, of the score, something that Shostakovich, a fellow student at the Leningrad Conservatoire and occasional duet partner for Yudina, admired. It is enlightening to listen to her recordings while bearing his observations in mind. Yudina also had a deep understanding of Beethoven, and her interpretation of [Beethoven sonata] op. 111 was especially remarkable”, Shostakovich said. “She held your attention completely in the second movement, which is so hard to grasp; the music’s inner tension never wavered for a second.”

During the Nazi blockade of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, Yudina played a repertoire that emphasized the patriotic – from Glinka to Rachmaninov, Borodin to Prokofiev – as well as Felix Mendelssohn in response to the Nazi ban on his music. When the Red Army eventually broke through the blockade, Yudina was part of the government’s three brigades of artists sent to entertain the city’s exhausted civilian population. In an endearing exchange that encapsulates Yudina’s guileless susceptibility to the passion of the moment, the revered Soviet pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus asked her why she played Bach’s preludes and fugues so loudly in a performance. “But Heinrich Gustavovich, we’re at war!”, Yudina replied.

It is as disturbing as it is grimly unsurprising to learn the extent to which the classical music world bore the paranoid scrutiny that Stalin unleashed on almost every other Soviet institution. Admittedly, Yudina did not suffer as much as composer friends such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev; but because she refused to renounce religion and was dedicated to helping of the Soviet Union, her victims career oscillated between fame and disgrace. In 1960 she lost another teaching job, this time at Moscow’s Gnessin Academy. After a life of musical curiosity, long-lasting friendship and spiritual contemplation, Yudina died penniless in 1970, at the age of seventy-one, in a Moscow hospital. Her death was caused by an error in medication. She had never owned her own piano and had spent much of her life in debt, but, spurred by her convictions, she had braved many dangers to live “Con fuoco”.

Nadia Beardis a writer and pianist based in Tbilisi

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