Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Gaining a new appreciation for the Russian pianists


When Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz made his American debut in 1928, his nationality caused almost as great a stir as his virtuosity.

"Blood is blood," wrote Olin Downes, then the music critic of the New York Times. "The call of the wild is heard, whether it is a savage beating on a drum or a young Russian, mad with excitement, physical speed and power, pounding on a keyboard."

That image of the Russian pianist -- a heaven-stormer with a sovereign disregard for tender ears and with musical instincts unimpeded by musical culture -- still persists. Bernard Holland, one of Downes' successors at the Times, frequently rails against Russian pianists and hopes that the breakup of the former Soviet Union presages an end to Russian pianism, with its "rows of glum virtuosos [who] regularly rolled over their soft-bellied capitalist rivals, accomplishing with 32nd notes and thundering fortissimos what their political leader and potential missile-launch of a generation ago, Nikita Krushchev, could only threaten."

But the popular notion of Russian piano-playing as blood sport says more about American ignorance of Russian musicians than it does about the playing itself.

A remarkable new 11-CD set from BMG Classics, "The Russian Piano School," should correct such ignorance. That the names of many of the 10 great pianists featured in this collection will be unfamiliar to most American music lovers is significant in itself. And the recordings -- beginning with those of Alexander Goldenweiser, an intimate of Tolstoy's, and ending with Evgeny Kissin, born a century after Goldenweiser -- suggest that Russia produces pianists who are as different in style as they are alike in great-ness.

The common perception of the "Russian style" -- bigger than life, with dramatic contrasts in dynamics and tempos -- is somewhat applicable to Lazar Berman and, perhaps, to Emil Gilels. But it does not begin to describe the gracious, Old-World elegance of Goldenweiser, who made recordings as late as 1955, the expressionistic intensity of Vladimir Sofronitsky or the profound introspection of Sviatoslav Richter.

"A Russian school in terms of temperament is ridiculous," says Vincent Lenti, a faculty member of the Eastman School of Music and a historian of keyboard style. "What unifies the Russians is their unparalleled mastery of the instrument -- their hand position, their posture, their relaxation. If you want to talk about the large numbers of superior Russian pianists, then what you have to talk about is the superiority of their teaching and training."

Russian piano playing has its roots in the 1860s, when the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, founded the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, respectively. By the beginning of the 20th century, such remarkable pianists as Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne, Alexander Siloti, Felix Blumenfeld, Goldenweiser and Konstantin Igumnov had emerged, many with talented pupils of their own.

The revolution of 1917 led to the departure of some, but most remained behind. And the pedagogy that had produced a Lhevinne and a Rachmaninoff was elaborated, extended and systematized. One of the most important innovations was the founding in the 1930s of the Moscow Central School, which prepared extraordinarily gifted children for the Moscow Conservatory.

The Central School was followed by similar schools in other large Soviet cities. Each year, music teachers from cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow scoured the provinces for gifted children. Many of the most promising were relocated to those cities with their families so that they could study with the best teachers. Such was the case with 9-year-olds such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Lazar Berman. This approach is a key difference between the training of Russian and American pianists.

"When you get really young people that get molded by a really strong force, you achieve interesting results," says the well-known pianist Ivan Davis, who teaches at the University of Miami. "I don't see pupils until they are graduate students. At that age, you can refine them, but you can't awaken them to music. The Russians have always had an ability to teach really young kids, and they don't wait until they're 18 to match them up with good teachers."

Nelitta True, the chairwoman of the piano department at the Eastman School, has observed and studied Russian teaching methods, and she agrees that they're the most successful in the world, particularly with young children.

"I saw kids with one or two years of training play with ease and with a great sound," True says. "And the thing about Russian musical education is that the best pianists become the teachers."

That's rarely true in the United States, where such well-known pianists as Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman began teaching in earnest only after their concert careers were interrupted by injuries or illness. One of the prices that Soviet musicians had to pay for their superb, free education was that they had to teach. Almost all the best-known Soviet musicians had teaching careers that yielded distinguished results at major international competitions. Seven of the 10 pianists represented on BMG's "Russian Piano School," for example, are connected by teacher-student relationships. Heinrich Neuhaus, for example, taught both Richter and Gilels (in a teaching career that began with Vladimir Horowitz and that ended with Radu Lupu).

And these relationships -- unlike those typical of teachers and students in the United States -- tended to be of long duration. Berman, for example, began to study with Goldenweiser when he was a child of 9 and only stopped working with him when Goldenweiser died in 1961; Berman was 31 years old.

"The American model is for someone to get one degree at Curtis, another at Juilliard and still another at Indiana," Eastman's Lenti says. "Within eight years, it's usually the case in the United States that a pianist will have studied with three or four teachers. Russian teachers really put their mark on their students and provide younger pianists with someone older and more experienced to whom they can go when they need help. Any pianist with any sense should know enough to do that; what makes the Russian system different is that such relationships are built into it."

And, Nelitta True adds, such relationships make Russian students all the more conscious of the traditions they represent and the ancestors from whom they trace their descent.

The pianists represented in BMG's "Russian School" may be obscure to American students, but they are familiar figures to Russians.

"Young Russian pianists listen to their recordings and talk intelligently about the differences in their styles," True says. "In the United States, if you mention Wilhelm Backhaus or Walter Gieseking, students haven't got the slightest idea about whom you're talking. In Russia, every student must take a course in which they listen to and must discuss the recordings of the great pianists -- foreign as well as Russian -- of the past. A sense of tradition, of being part of something great, is drummed into those kids."

After a visit to such a class at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, True says, "The school's director remarked [about the students]: 'Perhaps we work them too hard; perhaps we should follow more the American system.' "

"I thought to myself, 'What American system? We don't have anything codified as they do,' " she says.

"Then I thought: 'Why would they even want to be more like us?'"

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad