Dead Souls, Living Music — Past Is Present When Touring the Cultural Monuments of Moscow

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By Bradley Bambarger <2015>

For the music lover, Moscow is far more than just Red Square and the Kremlin or even the museums, markets and impressive socialist project of the city’s Art Deco Metro stations. History and culture resonate in this vast, dynamic metropolis of more than 12 million people, with classical music taking a prideful place in the land of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Russians have always loved monuments; this visitor looked up one day while walking on Tverskaya, one of main arteries in the city center, and saw a huge, artful plaque devoted to the great Soviet-era pianist Emil Gilels, who lived on the street. Not likely that you would see something comparable in New York City.

A Westerner newcomer might expect a mix of old Soviet grimness or oil-money nouveau-riche gaucherie when visiting Moscow. There are weird sights — like the occasional horse on the sidewalk after midnight — and such highly ironic incongruities as a high-end mall just blocks from the big statue of Karl Marx. But what one mostly finds now in the city center — where I spent a month producing videos for Medici.tv’s coverage of the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition this summer — is a very European, 24-hour urban culture, laced with history but brimming with a bright, friendly vibe. The lovely spring-like June for the competition was a great time to visit, with Muscovites burdened by hard, epic winters obviously happy to enjoy nice weather. The neighborhood around the Conservatory buzzed with young, liberal-minded creative types.

Of course, Moscow remains a deeply complicated place with undercurrents of tragedy — and the venal, Cold War-redux politics of the Vladimir Putin regime are a reminder of this. There are deeply conservative attitudes entrenched in the society at large, too, so Tchaikovsky might not have a much easier time as an out gay man now than he did as a closeted one in the 19th century.

Pianist Alexei Lubimov, a native Muscovite, also laments the touristy gentrification of his city and a development-driven government’s lack of protection for historic buildings and green spaces. As we see in Manhattan and elsewhere in the U.S., the generic and moneyed often push out what was charming and real. Yet landmarks remain, such as the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory — what Lubimov calls “one of the best in the world,” a visually and acoustically resplendent space, a home to some of the greatest classical musicians the world has ever known. The larger-than-life performers of Soviet-era Russia — pianists Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, violinists David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, conductors Yevgeny Mravinsky and Evgeny Svetlanov, etc. — loom like icons here, their visages prominent, their recordings still touchstones.

Yet not all is past. Young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, Grand Prix winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, has risen to international stardom, with an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon contract. And, of course, Valery Gergiev — leader of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, as well as co-chair of the Tchaikovsky Competition, among much else — has become the world’s most powerful conductor, with Trifonov and the likes of superstar soprano Anna Netrebko his protégés. Violist Yuri Bashmet leads his Grammy Award-winning Moscow Soloists chamber orchestra in a season at the conservatory’s Great Hall, while pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev’s Russian National Orchestra — named one of the world’s top 15 orchestras in a recent Gramophone critic’s poll — plays its season at the city’s bigger Tchaikovsky Concert Hall.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes, who spent his first extended time in Moscow this summer with three weeks as a juror for the Tchaikovsky Competition, was struck by the “passionate investment” of Muscovite audiences at the competition: “They would get all worked up over their favorites.” The mild-mannered violinist also recalls — shakily — a native-style tour of the city’s musical monuments. “It was one of those very Russian sorts of things: a night out that started with dinner at 7 p.m. and didn’t end until 7 a.m., with a couple more meals in between. We were given a car tour by an enthusiastic local of Moscow musical monuments, some devoted to Rachmaninov, Rostropovich, Tchaikovsky and, I think, Mussorgsky. It’s hard to remember, because we stopped so many times for toasts, with bottles of vodka pulled out of the trunk…”

So, as a Baedeker in case you find yourself in Moscow, here are some of the most memorable sites (sans vodka) for music lovers: the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall but also the Sviatoslav Richter Memorial Apartment, the Scriabin Apartment-Museum and the Novodevichy Necropolis, where the greats of Russian culture are buried, beautifully. Irish pianist Barry Douglas, who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986, returns to Moscow often, saying that he loves “the buzz about the city” now and its “warm people.” Most recently, he performed at pianist Boris Berezovsky’s Music of the Earth Festival, held at the All-Russian Museum of Decorative, Applied & Folk Art. Douglas says: “Whenever I have the opportunity to come back to Moscow, I always say, ‘Yeah, I’m going’.”

Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory

In the Soviet Union, music held a special meaning for listeners, one in which a sort of unspoken dissidence could be shared in listening to works too abstract to be banned even if they stood for values inimical to the regime. Although audiences tend to be generally conservative in their tastes now — as Lubimov and others regret — there is still a great legacy of feeling in the connection Russians have to classical music. You can sense it in the audiences, their concentration and, as Ehnes pointed out, their “investment.” That’s the case in small chamber music halls around the city, as well as at the 1,737-seat Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in the lovely Presnya district — which is rich in literary history, too, including the house museums devoted to Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov. The area also features many of the locations in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of the most wonderful 20th-century Russian novels (and the one Mick Jagger read before writing “Sympathy for the Devil”).

In terms of its illustrious history and acoustic qualities, the Great Hall — opened in 1901, renovated in 2011 — ranks with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Vienna’s Musikverein and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Such composer-pianists as Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Medtner and Shostakovich graced its stage, as well as a grand parade of other performers. Not only the aforementioned icons had some of their great moments in the Great Hall but also the likes of Vladimir Sofronitsky, Maria Yudina, Tatyana Nikolayeva, Natalia Gutman, Elena Obraztsova, Boris Pergamenschikov, Vladimir Ashkenazy, David Geringas, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Valery Polyansky, Grigory Sokolov, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky, Olga Borodina, Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Knaizev, Viktoria Mullova, Evgeny Kissin, Denis Matsuev and on and on.

That’s not to mention vital cultural exchanges with Western artists via this venue, starting with pianists Glenn Gould and Van Cliburn — the latter of whom stunned the world by winning the first Tchaikovsky Competition, at the height of the Cold War in 1958 — and then Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, both performing works by Shostakovich in the composer’s presence.

There are busts in the hallways of Hungarian composer-pianist Bela Bartók and Romanian composer-violinist George Enescu, as well as of Richter and Svetlanov. There’s a huge 1871 painting that depicts the circle of Slavic composers including Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glinka, as well as vintage posters devoted to the likes of Oistrakh, Kogan and Moscow’s Beethoven Quartet. Maxim Fedotov — a violinist, teacher at the Moscow Conservatory and Tchaikovsky Competition juror — calls the conservatory’s Great Hall a “temple” of art, and when he speaks about it you can feel his deep affection for the place.

“Like every temple, the Great Hall has its house spirits,” Fedotov says, referring to the keen music lovers who rarely miss a concert. “Unfortunately, time passes and some are gone, but I still see faces I remember from when I was a young man here. They’re experts who know all the performers and discuss everything. Even the coat-check here is almost like another department of the conservatory. Virtually every person who works here — ticket collectors, coatroom attendants, etc. — has a degree in music, is a former music teacher. They’re true connoisseurs, and music is their life.”

The same goes for Fedotov himself, as he also found love in the Great Hall. “In 1986, Vladimir Horowitz returned to Russia after many years,” explains the violinist, who is now 54. “I couldn’t get into this concert — it was completely sold out. But I saw it — from the chandelier in the ceiling, which had a trapdoor. An older musician told me about how he used to go in there as a boy. So my friends and I crawled in through the roof and sat there listening to Horowitz. But I wasn’t only watching him — I saw a beautiful girl sitting on the stairs. It was my Galya, who later became my wife, Galya Petrova, a pianist. We’ve been playing our own concerts in this hall, where we first met. Recently, we watched the DVD of that Horowitz concert again. We were amazed to see all of musical Moscow sitting there.”

Sviatoslav Richter Memorial Apartment

Virtually around the corner from the Moscow Conservatory, on the 16th floor of 2/6 Bolshaya Bronnaya Street, is the Sviatoslav Richter Memorial Apartment. Richter (1915–97) stands as one of the 20th century’s most potent, prolific pianists, a fact underscored by his complete recorded works for Western record companies having been reissued recently in three boxed sets totaling 81 CDs (and that doesn’t even include his myriad recordings for the venerable Russian state record label, Melodiya, among others). His vast repertoire ranged from Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Liszt to Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Szymanowski, Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, with Richter premiering several works by the latter two composers when they were nearly still wet on the page. Few pianists have the mystique of Richter, something that was true even before he was allowed to travel beyond the Iron Curtain. When Gilels was praised on his first tour of the U.S. in 1955, he said: “Wait until you hear Richter.”

Glenn Gould recalled his first experience of Richter in 1957. The Russian was playing Schubert’s B-flat Major Sonata at the Moscow Conservatory; afterward, Gould — not a Schubert fan — declared: “I realized that I was in the presence of one of the most powerful communicators the world of music has produced in our time.” Richter wasn’t allowed to come to the U.S. until 1960. In Bruno Monsaingeon’s absorbing documentary Richter: The Enigma, the pianist’s longtime companion, singer Nina Dorliac, recalled that “Oistrakh and [conductor Kirill] Kondrashin constantly begged the Central Committee: ‘Please let Richter go. Whenever we go abroad, the first thing they ask is, ‘When is Richter coming?’ It’s embarrassing!’ ” His first American tour culminated in six sold-out recitals at Carnegie Hall. The New York Times said: “An awesome legend to everybody outside Russia, Sviatoslav Richter finally became an awesome reality on the stage of Carnegie Hall last night.”

Richter was a famously willful, even eccentric man, deeply self-critical and prone to depression. But he could also be a vibrant personality, deeply curious about art and the world. He loved his apartment on Bolshaya Bronnaya for “its view over the whole of Moscow.” Richter and Dorliac hosted warm-hearted holiday parties there, often listening to beloved records of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in the huge main room. The apartment now hosts exhibitions and performances, with the items on the wall ranging from the whimsical — a dangling marionette of Richter — to the historic, as with a photo of the pianist and Oistrakh practically pushing a visibly shy Shostakovich onstage to take a bow after they premiered his Violin Sonata in 1969 at the Moscow Conservatory.

When I visited the apartment, pianist-pedagogue Dmitri Bashkirov was along to play Richter’s piano and reminisce glowingly about his friend, having brought along several of the postcards that Richter liked to send his loved ones. It was in his native Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1944, when he was 13, that Bashkirov first heard Richter perform; many years later, Richter would befriend the younger pianist. Bashkirov recalled that Richter “loved to organize games of charades with his closest friends and family,” pulling out a photo of him dressed up in a Roman toga. About Richter’s pianism, Bashkirov said: “Whenever Richter was playing, I felt as if I were hypnotized… like magic was being done right in front of me.”

Scriabin Apartment-Museum

One of the ever-fascinating figures of early 20th-century Russian music is composer-pianist Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915), a distinctly self-driven artist whose vision evolved quickly from post-Chopin Romantic to iconoclastic, mystical-minded futurist. The Muscovite’s music — which has gone in and out of fashion over the decades — is kaleidoscopic, some of it fantastical, all of it sensuous, even erotic. Scriabin and influential Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont were mutual admirers. The poet remarked: “When Scriabin plays, there is no piano, only a beautiful woman. He is making love to her.”

Scriabin’s last apartment, where he lived from 1912 to 1915 at Nikolopeskovsky Lane 11 in the Old Arbat district, is now the Scriabin Apartment-Museum, a wonderful place. Astonishingly in a city with an endemic shortage of apartments, the state has maintained the dwelling in virtually period condition as a museum since 1922, not long after the composer’s family moved out. Twice a year, on Scriabin’s birthday and death day, a notable pianist will play the instrument that the Bechstein company gifted the composer. This past April 27, for the 100th anniversary of Scriabin’s death, Nikolai Lugansky played some of the composer’s etudes on the Bechstein. There’s also a player-piano mechanism in the museum — Scriabin recorded nine of his own pieces via Welte-Mignon piano roll in 1910, so we can hear his rubato-laced wizardry on record today.

There was an ideal guide on the day I was there, supremely well-informed, articulate in English and good-humored as she traced Scriabin’s entire life through the items in the apartment. There’s a pre-conservatory school picture that shows Scriabin in the same class with Rachmaninov. Scriabin didn’t care for his former classmate’s music — his ego wouldn’t have allowed him to — but Rachmaninov played all-Scriabin recitals around Russia after his early death. Scriabin’s last concert clothes are in a case — a diminutive tuxedo — as well as casts of his hands, which were small for a pianist, the opposite of Rachmaninov’s capacious mitts. The bookcase reveals Scriabin’s enthusiasm for theosophy and philosophy, with lots of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, plus scores of Chopin and Wagner. A score of the prologue to Scriabin’s unfinished magnum opus, Mysterium, lies open.

Scriabin was a pioneering composer, pushing the boundaries of tonality in his late works in a different way than Schoenberg. Inspired by his powers of svetozvuk, or synaesthesia — Scriabin saw colors when he heard music (such as metallic gray for his great D-sharp minor Etude Op. 8 №12) — he also envisioned multimedia performances far ahead of his time. He designed a contraption of colored light bulbs — a “Klavier of Light” — to accompany his orchestral work Prometheus, with the score even containing a stave especially for it; the prototype is on display.

There are intimate, very human images of Scriabin throughout the museum, including photographs with his children and a snapshot of him having a cup of coffee as he played chess, a game he loved but played badly, according to his friends. Scarcely reconcilable with those images is the fact that Scriabin had wildly messianic pretensions near the end of his life, proposing his music as having spiritually transformative qualities for mankind; in one of history’s grim ironies, he died at 43 of the most banal cause: blood poisoning from an infected pimple under his mustache. Above his deathbed is another touchingly human photo taken by a close friend, showing the disheveled composer smiling at his desk just after he put the finishing touches on his score of Prometheus.

Novodevichy Necropolis

Scriabin — along with most of the other great figures in Russian culture — is buried in the Novodevichy Necropolis, a magnificent cemetery in the Khamovniki district next to the Novodevichy (“New Maidens”) Convent, built in 1524. Also at rest here are such musical figures as Richter, Oistrakh, Kogan, Gilels, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and composer Nikolai Myaskovsky. Then there are the writers Gogol, Chekhov and Bulgakov, as well as ballerinas, visual artists and theater and film figures like Stanislavsky and Eisenstein, plus such politicos as Khrushchev and Yeltsin.

With lush foliage in the summer and jasmine in the air, Novodevichy Necropolis is a true garden of souls, more breathtaking — with long walkways and views of the convent’s battlements and spires beyond the walls — than even Père Lachaise in Paris or the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. There is a large, restful park outside the walls with a pond that Tolstoy liked to skate upon. Grave monuments at Novodevichy are often extraordinarily expressive works of art, such as that for a pioneering surgeon of two outstretched stone hands holding an abstract red crystal heart. The grave markers for brave postmodernist composer Alfred Schnittke (1934–98) include one that’s monumental plus another, smaller stone inscribed with a characteristic musical joke — a rest marked triple forte. Singer Feodor Chaliapin, the sonorous embodiment of Boris Godunov, is fully sculpted in white stone, his figure seated above the grave as if holding forth like the cosmopolitan raconteur he was. The monument for Oistrakh features a bust of him in the iconic pose with violin under his chin; it reminded me of what Richter said about Oistrakh’s tone: “Even in your dreams, you couldn’t imagine a more beautiful sound.” It isn’t a feeling of death that you get at Novodevichy cemetery but rather the feeling of life’s sublime possibility.

The day I visited Novodevichy, I was in the company of pianist Vladimir Feltsman, whose father, Oscar — a composer of famous popular songs, “like a Russian Irving Berlin, every truck driver knew his name” — is buried there near Rostropovich. Feltsman, who emigrated from the U.S.S.R. to America in 1987 after years of political oppression, told stories as he walked from one cultural giant’s gravestone to the next. Feltsman stopped at the grave of Gilels to recall listening as a kid to him practice outside his dacha and noted: “No one I heard play live had a tone more beautiful than Gilels, no one ever,” he said. “For some reason I can’t explain, it doesn’t quite translate to his recordings. They are wonderful, but the same magic isn’t there. Richter, on the other hand, didn’t always sound great to me in concert, but he’s wonderful on recordings. A curious thing.”

Stepping to Scriabin’s monument, he noted the composer’s following as a “prophet” in his day: “Messianic followings loom large in Russia. Unfortunately, there has always been that propensity to look for the man who has the answer. It’s still that way here.” Feltsman lingered at the grave of Prokofiev — “the Russian Mozart,” he called him — to point out that the composer died on the same day as Stalin. “There were no flowers left on that day — they all went for ‘dear Comrade Stalin’,” he said, going on to talk about the Kafkaesque decree in 1948 by a henchman of Stalin vilifying several composers — Myaskovsky, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Shostakovich — for writing “ ‘music under the influence of the decadent modernist West, which is foreign to Soviet ideals’ and all that nonsense.”

Russia’s leaders — from the Tsarist era to Communist times and beyond — have tormented the country’s creative artists, from Pushkin and Dostoevsky to Meyerhold and Schnittke (not to mention the punk-protest band Pussy Riot, more recently). As the émigré Nabokov pointed out, free-minded Russian artists have usually only been celebrated once they have breathed their last. Interviewed not long before his death in 2007, Rostropovich was asked about the current government’s relationship to the arts; he replied, “They are so busy with other issues that they don’t have time to make things worse.” One can only hope. Walking past the graves of Shostakovich and Bulgakov on the way out of Novodevichy, Feltsman chose not to talk about the bad old days anymore, saying: “Ah, let’s not go there… This is a very beautiful place.”

(Originally published in the autumn 2015 issue of Listen magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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