The whole truth about Maria Yudina

The whole truth about Maria Yudina


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2020

Hard on her recent anniversary, we are delighted to publish a major study by the Polish scholar Aleksander Hanslik:

A PIANIST “d’execution transcendante”

Remembrance of Maria Yudina on the 50th anniversary of her death

Aleksander Hanslik

It is November 19, 1961, concert hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. On the stage comes a petite woman with dark hair, strong features, dressed in a black coat of an orthodox nun. She plays a great recital; in the program, among others, Beethoven’s 32 variations in C minor, Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata, pieces of Ernst Křenek and Anton Webern. The hall reacts with enthusiasm and expects encores. The pianist stands in front of the piano and reads the poetry of her friend Boris Pasternak.

After that, Maria Yudina, one of the greatest personalities of 20th century pianists, never played at the Leningrad Philharmonic.

In a letter to Konstantin Fiedin (1926) Maxim Gorki writes: “From physical suffering we are healed by doctors, with increasing success, from moral sufferings by Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and others…”. He calls them “village healers”. Maria Yudina decided to be just such a soul-healer.

Writing about Yudina is therefore writing of both of her phenomenal pianistic art and as well as of her moral (religious) mission, to which she subordinated her musical activity.

The life stories of even the greatest performers are mostly reduced to a list of the most important recordings and a short biographical note. In the case of Maria Yudina, we have not only a wealth of recordings, but also an yet analytically unprocessed legacy of correspondence, articles, essays, testimonies of witnesses of her musical-social-religious activity. Her correspondence itself (Perepiski) with great figures of Russian and Western culture and ideas, including Pasternak, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Bachtin, Stockhausen, Serocki, Florensky, Adorno, N. Mandelstam, are seven volumes  released in Russia between 2006 and 2013.

The story of Maria Yudina is a touch on two phenomena of Russian culture of 20th century: virtuosity and mysticism embedded in her case in the orthodox messianism. The cosmos of Maria Yudina is therefore a world of music, religion and literature – she called this world “Theme with variations”, in which the theme is a man passing through life (variations) – aiming for eternity (M. Drozdova).

Choosing such a path in the worst possible times for the freedom of the individual (in the times of Stalin, and even later, until the death of the pianist) had, of course, its price, which she was willing to pay at any time. The price were repressions “as usual”, such as expulsion from the music conservatory or prohibition of concerts, although she avoided the worst fate of those times, despite her steadfast and intrepid attitude as a musician, and as a “preacher”.

Writing about Yudina requires portraying her great musical personality and her social and-religious mission, reaching beyond the attractive myths – such as in the film Death of Stalin (Iannucci, 2017) or in a note about Yudina in the album The Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century (Philips/Steinway). These myths boil down to attractive but unproven associations such as “Maria Yudina – Joseph Stalin’s favorite pianist” or a film image, in which we see a scene replaying her recording over and over again of Mozart’s Piano Concert A-dur KV 488 at the time the dead Stalin was found, a bloody dictator and otherwise a lover of music.

Yudina’s youth is an archetype of a biography of the great revolutionaries women in Russia in the early 20th century, or, as Hanna Krall, who described their fate, says: “distraught, fevered Jewish women” (after Simone Weil).

Her fervor was closer to a missionary than to a revolutionary.

So we have a child prodigy, born (as the fourth) on September 9, 1899 in Newel (Vitebsk district), in the family of the respected land doctor Benjamin Gavrilovitch Judin. Newel was a town of deep periphery, but at the same time the tower of Babel of religions, nations, customs (70 percent were Jews, the rest are Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles). Father of Maria, who was a strong personality, managed to graduate as a poor Jew from medical studies and was a model of service to the society, for which he was awarded in Tsarist Russia by the Order of St. Anne. The family was not strongly associated with the Jewish religion, moreover, the father very much regretted that his beloved daughter had become a religious person; the very choice of faith did not matter to him.

In such a house, little Marusia, as she was called, had contact with a great Russian pianist – her first teacher was Frieda Lewinson, a student of Anton Rubinstein. Carefree childhood ended when, as a thirteen-year-old, she went to  St. Petersburg, where her father decided to put her in a conservatory in the class of Anna Yesipowa, who was a student and wife of Theodore Leschetytski. In St. Petersburg (Petrograd) in 1917, Yudina met Eugenia O. Otten (a religious, intelligence-related literary woman, later sentenced to nineteen years of exile), who introduced her to her religious-philosophical circle (“Resurrection”). This circle was increasing constantly (M.M. Bachtin, M.I. Kagan among others joined it), acted in the most turbulent times for Russia and was of course subject of severe repressions. In 1919, Yudina was baptized into the Orthodox Council, her godfather was the well-known literary critic Leo (Leib) Pumlianski. Since then, the artist’s  priorities have changed radically – she devoted herself to religious service through music and began to wear long black robes.

After a break caused by First World War, revolution and  health problems, Yudina completed her education at the Petersburg Conservatory in 1920 in the class of Professor Leonid W. Nikolaev. She studied, among others, with Dimitri Shostakovich and Vladimir Sofronitsky. Aleksander Glazunov, director of the Conservatory, wrote in his assessment of the diploma concert of Maria Yudina, comprising of works by Bach, Beethoven, Glazunov, Liszt: “Huge and virtuoso talent… Forte sometimes exaggerated… Rating: Very good+”. Excessive forte as an expression of rebellion will return more than once in the pianist’s renditions, which Svyatoslav Richter beautifully describes, mentioning Henryk Neuhaus, who after Yudina’s concert during the war, having heard her excessive fortissimo, asked why is it like that. Yudina replied, “We are at war now !”.

In the 1920s, the pianist threw herself into the philosophy by studying the works of St. Augustine (“hard to read, but I want and I can”) and orthodox theology, mainly in the works of Solovyov and Pavel Florensky, with whom she became friends in 1927. This friendship and Florensky’s death as a victim of Stalinism was of great importance for her spiritual formation and artistic mission. The issues of ethics of Judaism and Christianity were closest to her and led to an attitude full of asceticism and zeal in serving the people – mainly by means of the language of music. She was described as “a pianist of extremes for whom there was no golden mean.” The second most important area of  her interest was literature and theatre (from antiquity to contemporary Russian literature of the turbulent 20s years, then already banned.

Yudina’s solo concert activities began in 1921 with concerts with the orchestra, including Beethoven’s 4th and 5th Piano Concerto, Medtner’s Piano Concerto, Křenek’s and Hindemith’s works. Her extraordinary talent and personality bore the first fruits – on June 25, 1923, she received the position of Professor of the Petersburg (Petrograd) Conservatory.

An important event in Yudina’s life was the conviction and shooting in 1922 of Petrograd Metropolitan along with other clergy. At that time, she decided to always act openly, being aware of the consequences. One of her letters was signed: “Your faithful and dedicated Moscow madwoman, M. Yudina”. “Moscow”, because then she then went to Moscow, fighting for the release of the patriarch Tichon. Since then, she has become an increasing threat to herself. In 1925, in a questionnaire for conservatory pedagogues, when asked about membership and support for the Communist Party, she wrote: “Agreeing on many issues with the Russian Communist Party – I cannot belong to it because of my ideological and religious views.”

Yudina’s historical recital took place on March 9, 1930, in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. In the program were: Beethoven’s Lunar Sonata, and intermezzi Brahms, Chopin’s B minor Sonata, Prokofiev’s IV Sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition. As witnesses (including Anna Artobolewska) recall, the crowd stood from Nevsky Prospect to the entrance of the philharmonic hall. The concert was received euphorically – alongside the flowers small Russian orthodox icons were passed to Yudina from the hall.

Two days later, the artist was to answer questions from the director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Her answers, along with comments stigmatizing Yudina, were included in the article titled Nuns’s Habit in the Conservatory in the “Red Newspaper”. At the end of the article, the question was asked: “What is a Soviet high school for today, protesting together with the working class against russian Orthodox and catholic priests, mullahs, and pastors?”. Yudina lost her job at the Leningrad Conservatory on May 6, 1930.

Fortunately for the pianist, friends from Tbilisi helped her secure her life and position at the music conservatory there. She performed in this city with great success, also playing duets with her friend Wladimir Sofronitsky.

Andrei Tarkovsky said that for Russian artists, creativity has always been something of a mission, an ethical duty – it was never about empathizing with virtuosity, formal tricks. And so it was with Maria Yudina – endowed with phenomenal pianistic technique, she used it to paint, as she used to say, “musical icons” at the time of the great human trial. In 1931, she wrote to her spiritual guide, Father Paul Florensky: “I do not understand, why do your respect, Father, my playing, since it is only an endless, screaming sign of despair”.

Maria Yudina belongs to the last generation of absolutely recognizable pianists, it is impossible to confuse her performances of Beethoven’s Sonata “Hammerklavier” or Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor with other interpretations. Often described as building the architecture of music (architecture alongside poetry was her passion), she said of herself: “Here is a column, there are arches, here is the rhythm and development in time and space”.

After returning to Moscow in 1933, she began touring again, with great conductors like Dimitri Mitropoulos and Georges Sébastian. She often performed the new works of Soviet composers, for example Prokofiev’s second Piano Concert (1935) with the orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein. After this concert the composer gave her, along with thanks, his piece Things in themselves, which Yudina later repeatedly played. This piano concert was performed again in 1935 in the Column Hall of the House of Unions, conducted by Leo Ginzburg and on 28.10.1938 under the direction of Prokofiev in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory which was acclaimed as “triumphant”.

Despite the repressions for promoting contemporary music, this repertoire was an important chapter in her performances. We can mention, among others, Alban Berg sonatas, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky or Yuri Shaporin. This fascination is most revealed in the relations and correspondence with Shostakovich and Stravinsky, whom she admired and was the artist who gave the first performances of their works in Russia. After listening to Shostakovich’s XIII Symphony “Babi Yar” she wrote: “We all burn on the pages of this score”.

The 1930s and 1940s, especially the years of war, were a period of her extraordinary artistic activity. Like other great artists, she performed music on The All-Union Radio broadcasted for soldiers on the front lines or factories. After one of the broadcasts, she received a letter: 

We heard Beethoven’s Fantasy in your performance. We are strengthened. Thank you. We allow ourselves to ensure that we will protect Soviet culture, including you. Snipers Antonov and Terentiev”.

Maria Yudina went to her beloved Leningrad during the blockade to give concerts to the besieged population – on the radio and on the front. She wrote: “The muses are not silent in Leningrad”. In 1947, the famous night recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major KV 488 took place with an orchestra conducted by Alexander Gauk. The registration was made upon the instructions of Stalin’s entourage, who, having heard a performance of Mozart’s concerto by Yudina on the radio, wanted the vinyl record. The mystery of this recording becomes increasingly distant, but it is necessary to remember the words of Berdayev: “A myth does not mean the opposite of reality, on the contrary: it reveals a deep reality”. Maybe this recording saved the pianist’s life?

Back in the 1920s, Yudina dreamed of going to Western Europe to get to know the contemporary music that was radiating there, which she so vigorously promoted and paid for another expulsion from the conservatory. This plan failed – the artist only twice received permission to go abroad: in 1950 for the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death to East Germany and in 1954 to Poland to celebrate the anniversary of Soviet-Polish friendship. All subsequent attempts to go to concerts, despite many invitations from all over the world, ended with the silence of ” culture officials”.

Maria Yudina writes about Poland in 1954: ” […] fabulously beautiful journey. Yours from the homeland of Copernicus! Everything very interesting, beautiful, joyful”. The concert program included, among others, Beethoven’s V  Concert, performed with the Silesian’s Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Václav Smetáček. Recently, Yudina recordings made in Polish Radio were found and include Shostakovich Preludes and Fugue and Lutoslawski among others. They will be soon published in Russia.

The Soviet authorities never allowed for the film recordings of her concerts – although there are still a lot of sound recordings left, available e.g. on YouTube, a lot of her heritage found in Russian archives is being released by the old Russian label Melodya, to the amazement and delight of the listeners. Amazement – by the scale of the repertoire: from Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven (including “Hammerklavier”), Liszt to Shostakovich, Szymanowski, Hindemith or Webern; admiration – by the extraordinary strength of spirit and exceptional technical freedom.

In the Melodya anniversary release of Maria Yudina’s recordings a note was included  – Shostakovich’s famous statement after her performance of his Preludes and Fugues: “This is not what I wrote at all, but please: play it like that. Please – just play it like that !”. Shostakovich’s reaction is the shortest introduction to the description of Maria Yudina’s piano art – metaphysical art, her own and coherent vision of the piece, at the same time full of opposites.

Yudina, according to Dostoyevsky’s saying that “beauty will save the world”, considered her music to be a struggle against evil and a way to salvation. That’s why she often emphasized the “importance of expression” – what can be heard in her immense proportions of sound, pulse and “life of musical form”.

The years 1930-1960 were musically and literally turbulent for the pianist, when she joined the most “dangerous” milieu of Russian poets. As she recalls: “In summer 1940, going to N. Zabolotsky to work with him on translating the lyrics of Schubert’s songs, I met Henryk Neuhaus on the subway, who asked: “Are you also heading to Pasternak?“. “No, I say, not now”. As I’m about to walk up to the subway, Neuhaus grabs my sleeve: “My dear – it is important! Do they pay well for it? Do you know that Tsvetaeva has arrived and is without work ? Give her a job – give her your translation». After two days I was with Tsvetaeva – a dark mansard, […] an atmosphere of an imminent disaster […]”.

The preparations for a concert, in addition to the piano practicing, was complemented by Yudina’s comments – religious – philosophical texts, handwritten in her music sheet, for example, in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, already on the front page of the aria (theme) is her commentary – the words of The Psalm of David (“O how amiable are thy dwellings”).

She expressed a pious attitude towards Bach’s work during the first (and penultimate) concert trip abroad – in 1950 to Leipzig for the Bach jubilee. She then walked barefoot through half of the city to her master’s grave to pay tribute to him. And it wasn’t just a gesture.

A question that will go unanswered – how Maria Yudina survived the time of terror – being a defiant servant of music and people – ready to pay any price for her activity, including being expelled from the conservatory, which she described as “being petty”. If it was a sophisticated revenge of the regime, then it was a successful one – Yudina was prepared for the worst, which she often calmly wrote about, while suffering for the rest of her life, seeing her friends walking away – who were steadfast as herself.

On June, 1, 1960, Yudina was expelled from the Gnesinych Academy in Moscow for „religiousness not conforming with communist morality and for openly propagating the anti-Soviet art such as the works of Stravinsky”. The meeting with the composer – with whom she had only correspondence so far – took place on 6 October of the following year. It was one of the happiest moments of her life.

Yudina’s musical passions are an extremely broad performing spectrum and legacy of recordings: from Bach, Through Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok, Webern, Lutoslawski, Serocki, Jolivet. In her last years before death she focused on contemporary and classical composers. She gave concerts with the greatest conductors of that era – Russian and visiting Russia, such as: Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Georges Sébastian, Kurt Sanderling, Hermann Scherchen, Grzegorz Fitelberg, Otto Klemperer and many others.

Her interpretations are often considered as “masculine” and demonic, although they remain within the framework of intellectual self-discipline and artistic asceticism.

Yudina’s intellectualism was often incomprehensible to contemporaries – her renditions was described as too “rational”. At the same time, she was accused of losing proportions and “playing for herself”. When assessing her interpretations from the point of view of interpretation  canons, one can see the defiant and conscious abandonment of traditional patterns. She wrote: “When the master strives for expressiveness, he does not think about correctness” – but puts together things that do not fit together, sculpts, emphasizes inconsistencies and thus achieves the intended effect”.

Swiatoslav Richter wrote about Yudina: “She had a huge talent … Her performances of romantic music were thrilling… Weinen und Klagen of Liszt sounded unparalleled, but Schubert’s Sonata in B major D 960, which was breathtaking, was played totally “awry”.

The unique combination of the monumental scale and laconism of Yudina’s means of expression remains a mystery. The performance of Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111 is considered one of the most poignant performances of the work in general, and the work itself has become the subject of Yudina’s deep philosophical delving and dispute with Adorno.

Stockhausen wrote of Yudina: “She had a phenomenal sense of the future”. Brodski said that Tsvetaeva is a biblical poet. It can be said of Yudina that she was a biblical pianist, although she did not like, being called a “pianist” – she considered herself a musician “at the service of God”. She often referred in her texts to the Old Testament figure of Tobias and his archangel guardian.

Maria Yudina’s last solo performance took place on March 12, 1968 in the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow and was the culmination of her love for the ancient world and the music of the beloved Stravinsky – she played a piano version of his ballet Orpheus.

In the late 1960s ,Yudina, without the opportunity to tour with her gigantic repertoire, “from Bach to Berg” as she wrote, was looking for work in libraries, cemeteries and post office – “in the telegraph”. Of the job interview in “telegraph”, she writes: “Everyone here wants me, but the human resources department cannot accept me as a retired woman. I will write to the minister”.

She passed away on November 19, 1970 in Moscow.

The announcement of her death, the date and place of the funeral written handwritten on a small piece of paper was pinned to the poster on the door of the Chamber Hall of the Moscow Conservatory . Permission for the mourning ceremony at the Conservatory could only be obtained through Shostakovich’s intercession. It took place in the foyer of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Richter, Grinberg, Gornostajewa, among others played at the coffin.

Due to the non-payment of the piano rental, a few days after the funeral at the block where she lived, a crane appeared, with the help of which the old, black, out of key Bechstein piano was raised. Yudina’s piano has been sold a long time ago to help needy friends. 

In difficult moments, and there were many of them, she referred to the poem of her friend Boris Pasternak, ‘To be notable is not fit’:

Others follow in your fresh footsteps

They will cross, know, your trail carefully.

But it’s not proper for you

To distinguish between victories and defeats

The motto of Maria Yudina’s life was: “I know only one way to God – through art. I’m not saying my way is universal, I know there are other ways. For me, however, only this is available”.


In drafting this text, I was helped by Marina Anatolevna Drozdova, a student of Maria Yudina in the 1960s, now a professor at the Russian Academy of Music Gnesinych, as well as Marina Drozdova’s book “Maria Yudina – Religious Fate” (Religioznaja sudba) Moscow 2016. I remain deeply grateful for her boundless patience and help.

I also used the published collection of correspondence of Maria Yudina Perepiski (7 volumes), ed. Rosspen, Moscow 2006-2013, and available sources in the public domain.

I would like to thank Hanna Krall, Alexei B, Lubimov and Krzysztof Meyer for their valuable content and editorial suggestions.

Published by permission of PWM- Ruch Muzyczn


  • Occamsrazor says:

    I’m thinking how can the old story of this enigmatic cat lady who signed her letters “Moscow madwoman “ be politicized today enough to offer the slightest chance of a potential future monetization? Can it be a drop in the bucket of the current Russophobia and be used for example, to float the idea that the Soviet Union bears equal responsibility with the Nazi alliance for starting WW2? This idea has been losing its unthinkable status lately because the generation that witnessed the war is almost gone while most young people are dumbed down irreversibly.For example, a large percentage of Japanese kids now believe that it was Russia that dropped the nukes on them, a percentage of German kids think that Hitler is a German soccer player… PS. After all, Hitler is somewhat correctly understood as a clinical nutcase motivated by cannibalistic racial hatreds that conveniently masked his primitive greed for Russian resources and Lebensraum. Stalin on the other hand, is getting only more enigmatic with each passing day. He is portrayed in the Western media as an unpredictable serial killer motivated only by bloodlust itself. Nevermind that such creatures always implement the hands-on approach. He is not known to have ever raised his voice, let alone kill anyone and is a unique case of a sadist satisfied by printed lists of innocents to be executed. He never expressed the desire to even personally interrogate a single high profile defendant. Only the never-before observed satisfaction of signing seven-figure death warrant lists to the accompaniment of Yudina recordings and Shostakovich played daily on the radio. I think the saintly cat lady is being used, 50 years after her passing, to feed the Western ignorance about all things Soviet and the fantasies of those waiting to get some more of the tangible profits of Russophobia. There are some Polish politicians recently floating the idea of getting WW2 reparations from the current Russian state. It’s insane in the light of the lives of the 600000 Soviet soldiers lost freeing Poland from the Nazi occupation but a new Overton window is opening every day lately… As for the old cat lady, the great Ukrainian conductor Nicolai Malko whose students included Shostakovich himself, used to say to her: ” Marusia, just get married!” She was a somewhat good-looking girl in her young days, by the way. To announce that one knows the whole truth about her is slightly suspicious and causes an astute reader to ponder what other “whole “ truths the author knows and can there be money in them. An objective researcher would begin any discussion of her by stating the obvious which is that even she didn’t know the whole truth about herself, the closest she came to doing so was signing her letters “Moscow madwoman”. She was a clinical case and occasionally exhibited shocking callousness. I remember her reaction to the untimely passing of Sofronitsky who was her dearest lifelong friend. She dryly wrote that he died and that he didn’t play enough chamber music. That incident shows that her affect could be too flat for most people’s taste and puts into question the sincerity of her public feats of sainthood. Schizoid personality disorder seems possible. She was not Stalin’s victim and I would venture to say that it was Stalin who was, in an odd way, a victim of hers. She was an embarrassment and almost unmanageable. Even he didn’t know what to do with her. Intellectual honesty demands admitting that in an alternative reality her chances of getting fired from Juilliard weren’t much smaller than getting fired from a Soviet conservatory. I grew up among people who saw her daily for many decades and they considered her neither sane nor a victim. Such beings never work in the West in any capacity, let alone that of a professor in a major conservatory. Here they sleep on trains and occasionally sing and preach to those who are just trying to get home from work.

    • janpieterszoon says:

      Occamsrazor missed an opportunity to keep quiet. If you feel like it, read the Yudina-Suvtchinsky correspondence (Contrechamp Editions, Genève, 2020), which also contains letters exchanged by the pianist with Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Boulez, Jolivet, Nono, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Balanchine, Part, Adorno and perhaps you will understand the extraordinary greatness of a musician who here only wanted to mock.

      • lunia says:

        letters exchanged with Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Adorno

        I’ve heard enough. Disgusting bunch. And a fool to waste paper corresponding with such destroyers, or deranged self-absorbed lunatics.

      • Occamsrazor says:

        Janpieter, I never doubted her uniqueness and greatness. Many great people were clinically insane. I’ve had a couple of very close friends who were lifelong schizophrenics on meds. Their intellects and culture were stunning. I’m the last person to mock any disease. What I object to is Yudina being sold to the public as a victim of the Soviet regime. She had a life very rich in things that no money can buy. She often struggled financially because she gave her money away. Russia gave her adoration and the kind of fame that she wanted. Such people are unemployable in the West where the Russian ability to look beyond the superficial is unknown. The public everywhere associates themselves to some degree with the image of the artist they support. If you buy a Rolex you attain the successful identity of a Rolex wearer. The same applies to art choices, for instance, Glenn Gould fans become members of the Gould fan egregore, which projects a certain success, albeit in a very cerebral sense of the word. Many of art choices are calculated like those of clothes or vehicles. My point is that Yudina didn’t have a prayer in the glorious free West because hardly anyone would want to be associated with an old female piano dervish like her. The managers would insist on a haircut and a perm, a gaudy red dress, makeup etc. Only in Russia countless people wanted a piece of her image for themselves without changing a thing. Poverty, self-mortification and quixotic demeanor fit better with the Orthodox and the Catholic ideologies, not the Protestant America and her Colgate smile. As for her getting occasionally kicked out of conservatories, blaming the government or Stalin himself is ridiculous. I was kicked out of an American conservatory as a student. I don’t claim to be a victim of Bill Clinton. When you read most articles about her and Shostakovich, you walk away with the opinion that Stalin contemplated only these two problematic individuals from his Kremlin window and thought of nothing else for 30 years. Most musicians are egotistic and helpless at the same time, the duties of a laundromat owner are incomprehensible to them, let alone the idea that Stalin who controlled half the planet, couldn’t victimize those 2 poor fragile souls due to lack of time.

        • Marfisa says:

          I never can decide whether I prefer Occamsrazor’s undiluted savage Swiftean fantasy satire, or as here satire mixed with sense. Either way, I’m grateful for the glimpse of the Russian soul, and for egregore, a word (I confess) I had to look up.

          • Occamsrazor says:

            Marfisa, don’t blame yourself for having to look up the word egregore, it’s unknown in the English-speaking world but is widely used in Russia which used to have French as the official language. It’s a fancy word that describes the collective thought-form of any group of people, small or large. We can be members of countless egregores at the same time, some are permanent like national identities or professions etc and others last half an hour like the egregore of people inside the same train car who are exchanging disapproving looks and raised eyebrows after witnessing some derelict singing and pissing on himself. As for the satire, it’s the only way to survive in the art world. If you take it seriously you will have a daily reason to be depressed, drink yourself unconscious or be in a drug stupor. Once you see it for what it really is, you will be laughing for hours every day, seeing Woody Allen masterpieces everywhere that are, while unmistakably having to be his creations only, unknown to him while being completely real to you. This pleasure often makes any psychoactive substance use pale in comparison, with the added benefits of being, unlike the various brain tweaking, very healthy and completely free.

          • William Safford says:

            I think you give the razor too much credit. The signal to noise ratio is extremely unfavorable, and there is way too much dreck.

          • Marfisa says:

            William, what you hear as noise and dreck, I hear as ambiguity, dissonance, subtlety, historical depth. Different ears! As the man says: “… the West where the Russian ability to look beyond the superficial is unknown”. I do trust you would not have taken Swift’s Modest Proposal literally, had you been an 18th century reader. ( (And yes, Swift did become clinically insane.)

          • Occamsrazor says:

            Marfisa, thank you for the kind words but I would like my opinions to be always taken literally. I lie rarely and only in the situations where my life is in immediate danger. I`ve had my share of those and became both a magnificent liar and a pro at sensing when others lie. I always imagine the people I`m talking to, to have the same abilities and also be able to recognize lies immediately. My life is not in any danger while discussing Soviet piano art and there is no reason for me to use the lying skills I`ve developed in situations not even remotely related to the Soviet piano panopticon.

          • Marfisa says:

            Occamsrazor, I would not presume either to flatter or to defend you! I may very well be misreading, or hyper-reading, your comments. ‘Taking literally’ was a digression on Swift.

          • William Safford says:

            I’m thinking much more about the razor’s lies and misinformation about COVID-19 and similar issues.

            The rest? Feh.

          • Occamsrazor says:

            William, unlike cancer, cardiovascular diseases,various infections etc, covid can be cured by simply turning off the tv. I haven`t owned a tv since the mid 90s and have no fear of covid . I don`t own a microwave either and my only electric appliances are a vacuum cleaner, a drill and a coffee grinder. They haven`t informed me about any new diseases and I`ll continue not worrying about those that do exist either since it`s also a waste of time.

          • William Safford says:


        • Marfisa says:

          Thank you for the link. This looks interesting, and a raving bargain, if it is not a mistake, at 28 € for over 800 pages plus an audio CD. But I will brush up my French before splashing out!

    • esfir ross says:

      MY was “God’s fool-yurodivy” like one in “Boris Godunov

  • Luca says:

    She was much more of an eccentric than comes across in this article. Sviatoslav Richter said of her, “She was so odd that everyone avoided her.” He also played Rachmaninov at her funeral because she had said of him, “He’s a good pianist for Rachmaninov.”

  • P. Terry says:

    A critic named Hanslik. You couldn’t make it up.

  • Edgar Self says:

    An extraordinary document that through its love reveals the essence of Maria Yudina, triumphing over the difficulty of impenetrable prose, language, and translation.. A thousand thanks, Aleksander Hanslik.

    • esfir ross says:

      MY collect signatures to protest Iosif Brodsky trial in St.Petersburg. Dmitry Shostakovich refuse to sign. MY was grand dame of Russian pianism

      • Occamsrazor says:

        Brodsky, another victim of the inhumane Soviet repressive machine. That boy with his friend made detailed plans of highjacking a passenger plane to fly to some Western country. They needed a gun and decided upon hitting a random cop on the head and stealing his service pistol. Both ideas were supposedly later abandoned as dangerous and impractical. Brodsky did some short prison camp time which he himself described as a vacation. Now, how about you make such plans in today’s America? How long and in what conditions are you gonna spend in jail? Will some great American composer sign a petition for your release or you will also be happy to have an old cat lady sign it for you? Shostakovich was sane and even though he didn’t mind associating with harmless old cat ladies, he knew better than be in any way connected with Gitmo material. Later the Gitmo boy got the Nobel Prize in literature. Our gallery of the victims of the Soviet justice system meat grinder is getting bigger and the Gitmo poet is worth analyzing. His first job was at a morgue as some helper of sorts, probably undressing, washing and generally readying the clients for the rendezvous with the coroner. Very odd choice of employment considering that regular jobs were on every corner including sinecures, such as a night watchman who simply slept at some factory and got paid for it.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I love the phrase “Beethoven’s Lunar Sonata” buried deep in Mr. Handlik’s essay. I will steal it when I can. It is more eleganr rhan “Moonshine Sonata” and atones for many infelicities of translation, even better than “sonata quasi una fantasia”.

    Maria Yudina reminds me a little of Anna Akhmatova, whom Maia Tsvetayevva adored. Akhmatova also befriended Naiman and Josef Brodsky, whom she called “a cat and a half”. Not the least of ironies in Brodsky’s life is that he became poet laureate of the United States at a time when Rostropovich was conductor of our National Symphony. That would probably never have happened to Americans in Russia unless in a satire by Gogol.

    Anna khmatova also was a grande dame, and friend of Pasternak and Shostakovich. whose Tsvetayeva songs include “To Anna Akhmatova”. Then her name appears, the gong sounds and drums thunder. Akhmatova, Maria Grinberg, and Tatiana Nikolayeva, whom I talked to and saw play, are another great Russian memorial trio.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      “ Not the least of ironies in Brodsky’s life is that he became poet laureate of the United States at a time when Rostropovich was conductor of our National Symphony. That would probably never have happened to Americans in Russia unless in a satire by Gogol.“ Didn’t Russia hand Van Cliburn the gold medal in the first Tchaikovsky competition? That competition had Gilels and Shostakovich in the jury and competitions of that time in general were far from showing even the initial symptoms of the later devaluation which by now is complete and the prizes’ worth is in the Weimar Republic territory. Van Cliburn instantaneously achieved the kind of fame that nobody has ever had in the classical world. Some members of the jury were against the idea of giving him the 1st prize and it took the insistence of Gilels to go ahead with it. Russia appreciates talent and genius of every kind and political problems are not taken into consideration. For example, jazz is hugely popular there. As for Akhmatova, she was a very low person and so was Tsvetaeva. If you learn the real stories of theirs, you’ll never mention them again. I only recently did and was horrified. I thankfully avoided reading most poetry because I consider it to be almost entirely within the sphere of medical conditions, even more so than music. An average poet makes an average musician look like the epitome of sanity and decency. The rare healthy exceptions only prove the rule to me. Calling oneself a poet should be in the dictionary under the definition of the word “tastelessness”. I’ve met a few poets and even the memories make me shudder from a sudden onset of squeamishness. This admittedly fascist attitude saved me lots of time to learn about boring things like economics, politics, chemistry, physiology, sports, various antiques and crafts etc. Pushkin who was one of the rarest cases of true poets said that poetry is much easier to write than prose because prose requires thought. Even he was often skeptical about this genre.

  • A Pianist says:

    Great stuff, thank you for posting. I had no idea of Yudina’s wild story. There was a lot of intense religious mysticism in Russia just before the Bolsheviks took over — people like Rasputin and Gurdjieff being some of the more famous examples — and I would imagine there were many more religiously fanatical people around than the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was willing to admit.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Cliburn won because jury chairman Shostakovich and member Richter gave him all ten of their points and none to any other contestant. I don’t remember Gilels in onnexion with it. A midnight call to Kruschev was necessary for permissio to award Cliburn first prize. Shostakovich and Richter were never invited to be on the jury again.

    Akhmatova’s “Requiem” is set to music by Boris Tishchenko and John taveener. Was she really a low person? Pokofiev wrote songs to her verses, and Shostakovich clearly held her in awsetting Tsvetayevs’s poem about her in the striking manner I’ve described.

    Winning the Tchaikovsky competition was a sensation, but not the same as bei g named poet laureate or conductor of the national symphony. Cliburn’s career faltered, greatly gifted though he was. Remember when he played at the White House and sang “Moscow Nights” with the visiting Gorbachev?

    Shostakovich said Akhmatova was the most dignified person he ever met; she was devoted to him and his music, insisting onhearing his latest quartets, flying from besieged Leningrad with the unfinished score of his “eningrad Symphony, “my Seventh”, on her lap; and also a great friend of Pasternak and Brodsky.

    You do not read Russian poetry? Not Pushkin, Lermonto, Blok, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Yevtuschenko, Akhmatova, Pastrnak, Brodsky, Naiman, Tsvetayeva? Georgi Sviridov’s Pushkin and Blok settings, “Russia Cast Adrift”, are wonderfully sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky on CDd andYouTubewith his genis pianist Mikhael Arkadiev.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      Edgar, Akhmatova’s Requiem was the reason why her son refused to have any contact with her except for visiting her once after completing his 16 or so years in a prison camp and splitting an entire bottle of vodka with her. He also refused to attend her funeral. Lev Gumilyov and his father interest me infinitely more than Akhmatova and the rest of the Soviet dignified intelligentsia panopticon. There are long videos of Lev Gumilyov interviews on YouTube, who not only spent astronomical time in prison but fought in the entire war and became a world class historian. His disdain for intelligentsia makes mine look unforgivably mild. I don’t have time to read poetry because I prefer to collect various professions while also maintaining my physical health, it’s a full time job in itself. The only way to survive in the nearest future is to be able to do many things well and mercilessly abandon the skills that are becoming obsolete on daily basis.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Eshir Ross calls Yudina a grande dame. I agree, try to think of others, and come up with Wanda Landowka and Elly Ney, both of an allmost religious fervor, high principles according to their lights, strong mind and will, and musicality of the highest order. Lili Kraus and Myra Hess almost. I heard them all play, except Landowska, most several times, and assembled their discographies.

    Touched by controversy,– to rescue the harpsichord from oblivion Landowska had Pleyel build her a steel-cased two-manual instrument for travel, concerts and recording,– in Elly Ney’s case loyalty to the National Socialist regime. Grandezza, prepotence, terribilita.

    But Landowska’s Bach, and Elly Ney’s Beethoven and Brahms,are among the most powerful I’ve found.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      I attended Cliburn recital in Russia in 89 or so. I was a teenager, wasted drunk on that day and my friends who sat next to me and were in a slightly better condition, told me later that he played terribly. The only thing I remember is that a group of German tourists asked us during the intermission where the bathroom was to which I replied:”Hitler kaput!“ Nevertheless, he was a genius and a very noble soul. His competition is a completely different matter, being the epitome of what is wrong with the classical music today. The greatest female pianist in the recorded history is Rosita Renard whose motor skills and musical intellect are equal to those of Rachmaninov and Ignaz Friedman. She struggled financially and was a deeply Catholic lady who is almost forgotten today. Maybe because she wasn’t a victim of any politically appropriate regime for her short life story to be of any use in the great game of geopolitics.

  • Edgar SeLf says:

    William of Occam — I hope you are younger, with better vision, and better physica lentirety, that you take care of yourself, and that you survive.

    Akhmatova’s husband Gumilyov was executed. She was forbidden to publish . Her son Lev was arrested and sentenced to long exiled three times, She was interrogated and asked, “You call yourself a poet. What is a poet?”

    “A poet,” she answered, “is someone to whom you can give nothing. And from whom you cannot take anything away.”

    Robert Frost urged “Provide, provide,” adding ” …And what I would not part with, I have kept.”

    • Marfisa says:

      “The witch that came (the withered hag)
      To wash the steps with pail and rag
      Was once the beauty Abishag

      The pictured pride of Hollywood.

      Better to go down dignified
      With boughten friendship at your side
      Than none at all: provide, provide.”

      • Edgar Self says:

        Thanks, Marfisa. Ten points for completing the Robert Frost quotation. He did it, provided, took his own advice. It wasn’t easy. His wife, also a poet, died refusing to speak to him. His son Carol killed himself. Not easy to be a poet, or rhe wife or son of one, as Occam’s story of Akhmatov and her son Lev related.

        • Marfisa says:

          But please take several points off for ‘pictured pride’ instead of ‘picture pride’! Blame my fallible memory.
          I am relishing your conversation with Occamsrazor about pianists – thank you.

          • Edgar Self says:

            I’m enjoying it too. It probably shows. Twenty points, Marfisa, if you quoted the whole thing from memory. It’s an odd rhyme scheme: AAAB CCC. Frost got in trouble in the alien woods on a snowy evening, but got out of it unforgettably. What a pity Occam doesn’t read the poets. I thought all Russians did.

          • Marfisa says:

            I hope Occam finds time to read at least this wonderfully ambivalent one, only 21 lines so it is no great feat to have memorized it (but I’ll forego the 20 points). I quoted the first stanza and only the first line of the second, so the rhyme scheme is actually AAA BBB CCC …, making for even easier memorizing. Frost chooses his words and sounds meticulously (which is why my obtrusive d “made all the difference” in a bad way, like introducing F# into a C major chord). There is consummate artistry in the alliteration/near-alliteration of “witch – withered – wash – was – ..shag”, and in the deployment of b and p in “the beauty Abishag/ The picture pride” The crucial stanza (for me) is:

            Some have relied on what they knew.
            Others on being simply true.
            What worked for them might work for you.

          • Edgar Self says:

            Twenty more pointa,– you’re up to 50 now, take them or not. I scratched my head over that rhyme scheme; Frost is more careful than I am. I hadn’t read it for a long time. But the test of a poem, and a reader, isn’t whether you remember it, but could you ever forget it. And that has made all the difference.

        • Occamsrazor says:

          The short story of Akhmatova is that she cheated on her husband Gumilyov who was a true aristocrat and a true poet, executed later by the Lenin/Trotsky cannibal regime.Do you ever hear on the mainstream Western media about how many and what kind of people Lenin and Trotsky killed, tortured and starved? I haven`t heard a word. Among Gumilyov`s activities was collecting African antiques. He spent a lot of his time in Chad, returning home with them, putting fresh shirts in his suitcase, drinking a shot of vodka and immediately going back for more. Probably his fascination with Chad/Cameroon area was due to Pushkin`s ancestry being from that part of Africa. As for Tsvetaeva , that one slept around with both genders and starved one daughter of hers to death so she could stuff more food into the other one whom she liked more. PS. I`m writing this a short ride away from both Rachmaninov`s grave and Leon Trotsky`s old apartment on Grand Concourse, looking at my own collection of African antiques.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Occam — Rosita Renard had an unusual nervous system, like Simon Barere, that impelled her to pay things very fas, but well I’ve told how i sent the national librarian of Chile home with her recordings. She did not live long enough to become enmeshed in Chile’s politics, like Gabriel Mistral or Pablo Neruda, but you do not read poets. Her Chopin etudes and Mozart A-minor sonata fascinate and.

    I met a great friend of Ignaz Friedmann’s, the American concert-pianist Nathan Fryer, in Carmel where he lived well, in retirement. He shared my love of Friedmann’s Chopin nocturnes, mazurkas. impromptu in F#, and Grieg concerto, Kreutzer sonata with Hubermann, &tc.

    lSome concerts are not to be heard sober. Often the best thing Cliburn played was the first, the national anthem which he played standing upwith all of us, in Rachaninoff’s Baptist revival arrangement. You are perhaps too young to have heard Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, Vladimir Sofronitzki, or the ladies I mentioned.Best wishes. Yet you mention Renard, Friedmann,and Rachmaninoff, all dead before you were born. I remember well the day Rachmaninoff died, though I never saw him.

  • Occamsrazor says:

    Edgar, you obviously know more than me about the art world. The only time I’ve witnessed true old school greatness was the last concert of Earl Wild, the standing ovation didn’t seem to end and I continued to walk very uprightly for about a week after. I now regret that I attended the Cliburn recital but didn’t hear it. Back then I attended a few of my own recitals in the same condition and didn’t hear a thing, it’s a common thing for Russians. I love the Rachmaninov arrangement of the National anthem, I feel it should be mandatory to begin concerts with it. Cliburn recording of the Rachmaninov 3d is remarkable in the sense of the phenomenal togetherness of the waltz at the end of the 2d movement, the piano and the orchestra sound as one organism. Kirill Kondrashin was able to set the world record in this sense after a couple of rehearsals. When I think about what Rachmaninov premiere of this piece sounded like with Mahler conducting, I imagine it had the same inhuman precision like Kondrashin conducting. Rachmaninov said that Mahler was the best conductor he ever met and that says a lot to me. PS. Bach considered himself a craftsman, his sober-minded ideology plus the deepest of faiths so far produced the best results although today many people will mouthfrothingly argue with this. It was Beethoven who started all this nonsense of victimhood, public spectacles, madness as a commodity and shaking fists at sky etc. I think if Bach was alive today he would quit and work in construction while playing organ on Sundays at some church in the middle of nowhere.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      Forgot to add, I heard Daniel Pollack as a kid in Russia, it was fantastic even though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate it fully. He is a magnificent musician who could’ve won the first Tchaikovsky instead of Cliburn but didn’t because of some repertoire screwup, I don’t remember exactly what it was. Other than that I haven’t heard live performances of the great musicians of that generation. I’m too young and instead of old greatness I have to see militant mediocrity solidifying their dictatorship over the arts. They are too dumb to realize that they are already ruling over a dead thing like the end stage of cirrhosis where the connective tissue is happy to replace the last of the healthy liver cells.

  • Edgar Self says:

    We a’re agreed, Occam. on Cliburn, Kondrashin, and Rachmaninoff’s third. I like your description of the waltz in the second movement. But you don’t do yourself justice: I’ve never played an entire piano recital. Art is easy, life is difficult as Liszt observed. Yet art is long and life short, and music is the embodiment of the classic ideal of harmony,and worth striving for. The absence of harmony is a source of great unhappiness.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      Shostakovich and Yudina intensely disliked Rachmaninov. Shostakovich laughed at the idea of beauty in art . Rachmaninov was a 2-meter tall indictment of their entire ideology, having gone thru great personal problems and showing the world that it was possible to bring forth unfathomable beauty in the decidedly ugly 20th century. He was so severely bipolar and fragile in his youth that he both needed and sought professional help. If you personally know those who are clinically ill upstairs, they`ll tell you that they would prefer the toughest prison any day to their mental agony. That`s why they commit suicide so often. He was very rich and successful, seemingly indestructible but his falling apart after one bad review in his youth shows inborn, incurable, potential psychological fractures like inner bubbles/slag inclusions in a steel beam. No wonder he adored Horowitz and vs versa. They both lived in the same hidden agony yet created nothing but beauty. Their illness wasn`t of the spiritual nature but was simply a chemical imbalance that affected the speed and not the content of their minds. Psychiatric conditions such as bipolar sound way more ominous than various psychological ones like personality disorders. But I`d rather be around severely mentally ill people like bipolar or even schizophrenics who sometimes talk to trees but who always know right from wrong, than those who think that ugliness in art has spiritual value and the victim status is a commodity.PS. Rosina Lhevinne told her students that they would never play like her husband and others from that generation. She said it was partly due to the old ones having grown up among everyday things of beauty like the furniture etc. She rightly thought that even 1950s architecture etc had such grave consequences. Now consider the generation which grew up with android phones and video games. Classical music needs masses of classical people to appreciate it. They are no more coming back than tigers coming back to live in Central Park. We are the last generation that can have such conversations.

  • Edgar Self says:

    When Earl Wildwas nearly 90 he played three recitals at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago called “The Art of the Transcription’. I regret I didn’t hear them, but I hae the records, also his Gershwin concert song arrangements, Scharwenka, and uite a bit else. You did well, Occam.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Occam, we need to get contributor Nijinsky in on this discussion. I thought Rachmaninoff was buried at Valhalla, New York. After his early treatment and hypnosis by Dr. Dahl for depression, I haven’t heard or read of bipolarity in his ater life, though it’s possible. Dr. Dahl emigrated to Palestine, where he played violin in an orchestra that performed Rachmaninof’s second concerto, which the grateful composerhad dedicated to him. He is the ony dedicatee of one of the four concertos to perform the one dedicated to him, althugh not as soloist. The others were Rachmaninoff’s cousin Alexander Siloti, Josef Hofmann, and Nikolai Medtner.

    I begin to understand why you chose your nom de webbe.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      I didn’t know that Dahl played violin, it’s very interesting. He treated Rachmaninov not only for depression but for reactive psychosis. This info has only recently been released on the Russian media. He was an intensely private person and his willpower is evident from listening for 1 minute to any of his recordings. Judging by his work in USA, he pulled himself together entirely but anyone who goes through psychosis once, knows there is a torn ligament in the brain which can heal but it cannot never go back to factory settings again. Just knowing this is a huge stress factor in itself, waiting for ones psyche to crack again. You are right about Nijinsky, he knows a lot about Rachmaninov. PS. I often use people’s attitudes towards Rachmaninov as a quick diagnostic tool when reading various memoirs. I just open the last name indexes and find the pages mentioning Rachmaninov. This saves me lots of time. The same thing is people’s opinion about Horowitz, many pianists are dumb enough to admit their dislike of him in conversations. If people are so envious of him that they cannot control themselves and have to call him a “showman “ etc, it’s pathetic. If they are genuinely so dumb they cannot see his true place in the grand scheme of piano things, it’s also pathetic but in a milder way like a mental retardation issue.

  • ´dgar Self says:

    “If you would sit atop the steeple, you must grow used to the cawing of the crows.” Goethe remarked, who knew.. Horowitz’s detractors think of his early career and do not recognise his later and last work, or sometimes even his best early work. He knew as much about the piano as anyone who ever lived. He fought his demons and endured. Not everything works every time, not everything is of the highest value, but more than enough is to secure his place. He is visionary, even hallucinatory like Cortot, whom he early admired. I have no power to resist them, but try to choose what ia better and best.for me, what I can use. I regret I never saw Horowitz play, but I saw Cottot, Moiseiwitsch, and most others.

    The first records I bought as a boy were of Rachmaninoff when he was still alive, the Paganini Rhapsody by Moiseiwitsch, written in my lifetime, and Prelude in G minor, which my sister played along with Polichinelle and THE prelude. I love them still, and him, some things more than others. A creator walks a fine line between illusion, the creatures of his mind, and madness, if you like, or what others call reality, another illusion. Art is a dangerous game, necessary to maker and user for varying reasons.

    Philosophers and mystics live another life, not to be labeled or diagnosed. Music is a bridge. “Art is a lie … that enables us to see the truth,” was Picasso’s apologia. For the rest of us, love and unselfconsciousness can be the Way.