Western musicians are returning to Russia

Western musicians are returning to Russia


norman lebrecht

April 11, 2023

There seems to be a growing trickle of  musicians who are happy to  break sanctions and work in Putinn’s Russia.

Teodor Currentzis,  who performed two Stravinsky concerts in Moscow this week has long been committed to the Putin cause.

Alexannder Rahbari is coat-tailing with Gergiev in st Petersburg.

But more have joined them.

The young Spaniard Jordi Benaser is conducting at the Bolshoi.

The UK pianist Freddy Kempf is performing in Omsk this week, saying ‘Russia is too important for me to abandon it because of cancel culture.’

The Italian pianist Lorenzo Bagnati, 24, has moved to Moscow and is touring at the moment in Arkhangelsk, St. Petersburg and Tyumen.

A French pianist is also flitting back and forth.

Not many, but enough to be concerned that unanimty over Putin’s crimes is melting.




  • Thornhill says:

    It looks like BIS dropped Freddy Kempf years ago, and I cannot find any upcoming concert dates for him; did he do something?

    • Dr Tara Wilson says:

      He was a jury member at the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition (as a former medal winner); the chances are he’ll be so again at the 2023 competition.

    • Gorman says:

      Was supposed to be playing Rach 3 at Sheffield City Hall with Estonian National Symphony on 17 May. Barry Douglas is standing in.

    • Andy Lim says:

      first time heard of Freddy Kempf on slipped disc! is Freddy young chap or older guy?

  • To be paid or not to be paid says:

    Musicians need to earn a living. While people like Currentzis and Netrebko and the top few may have the luxury of picking where and when they perform (for political reasons also it is important how they choose) the majority of musicians in the world are just happy to be offered work, a stage and a salary – especially after covid – and even in Russia. Besides, nothing implies that they approve of the Putin regime because they are performing in his country. They just want to do their Beethoven concerto in concert or what have you.

    • Andy Lim says:

      People do need a living. As does artist/musicians. But are these Putin friendly musicians really going to be homeless or starving without Russian concerts? If Russia is too important for freddy kempf it just shows that other countries can obviously survive culturally without freddy.

    • Simpson says:

      They are paid by the regime which pays for the performing arts there, it is almost entirely government subsidized. Of course, accepting money from the regime of the war criminals is such a neutral act.

    • Robin Blick says:

      Would you have said the same about non-German musicians performing in the Third Reich? If not, why not?

    • MB says:

      Should Republican musicians now refuse to perform in the U.S.?

    • Patrick says:

      And the Auschwitz guards just wanted to do their jobs and put a roof over their head and food on the table for their families.

  • A.L. says:

    This is exactly what Putin is after. He is in for the long haul. His goal is to exhaust us into indifference. Ultimately, the powers that be will cave in and reach for a land compromise in Ukraine to end Putin’s war. Except the Ukrainians won’t (rightfully) fall for it so there won’t be an end.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      In reality, Putin knows he’s fighting nothing much at all with Ukraine’s western democratic supporters. He knows that if he waits long enough internal decadence will destroy those societies all by itself. And this is how much of the Middle East perceives us too – and they wouldn’t be wrong.

  • santi says:

    Fu** them all

  • James Ross says:

    Everyone is free to make their choice, but must accept the consequences. Good to know people with whom to never work in future.

  • Christoph says:

    Who does Freddy Kempf think is being “cancelled?” Would he have performed in Germany during the Third Reich? Or in Franco’s Spain? Or Pol Pot’s Cambodia?

    Or do these folks have any boundaries so long as the rubles are there?

    • Tony Sanderson says:

      Indeed, “cancel culture” normaly refers to someone not being allowed to speak because of his/hre views. Here you have the leader of a country wanted by the International Criminal Court.

    • Pointing out says:

      Britten visited the Soviet Union on several occasions during his lifetime…. what does that say?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Or, or, or in the USA after the invasion of Iraq?

      • Simpson says:

        Touring artists in the US aren’t paid by the federal government. Federal financing of performing arts is de minimus.

    • Hugo Preuß says:

      Toscanini refused to conduct in NS Germany and fascist Italy. So did the Busch brothers. No doubt, many on this blog would condemn them for “mixing music with politics”…

    • Dave says:

      He was almost doing ok with his self-justification, then he equated ‘cancel culture’ with rejection of an unjust war of aggression.

    • Count Pete says:

      Would he have performed in the Soviet Union, which imprisoned millions in the Gulag and violently crushed freedom in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere? Probably; in those days cultural exchange was celebrated, and many of our greatest artists and ensembles were proud to tour behind the Iron Curtain.

      The current, self-righteous return to xenophobia amazes me.

    • Paul Beardsell says:

      Look, I’m with you up to a point. But were you advocating of a boycott of USA and UK after the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya? Perhaps art is above the fray, a reminder to all parties that we are human beings first, and nationals of antagonistic countries second. Art, music, beauty generally, is to the most part not support for war or for aggression, it’s a civilising influence.

    • MacroV says:

      Thank you. Most of the world boycotted South Africa during apartheid, and bad as they were, they weren’t waging a brutal war against their neighbor. And performers who went to Sun City usually got a lot of flak for it (and money to salve their wounds), though not cancelled. Fine, let’s just be transparent about who goes, and audiences can decide accordingly.

  • Dr Tara Wilson says:

    ‘unanimty over Putin’s crimes is melting’… really?? There is a fundamental difference between seeing Russia as a country of cultural excellence and wanting to still make music… and being supportive of its political choices. Playing in Russia does not necessarily indicate that one is lacking in sympathy towards Ukraine.

  • Nicholas Kalogeresis says:

    Freddy Kempf who?

  • Mystic Chord says:

    ‘Russia is too important for me to abandon it because of cancel culture.’ What a spectacularly ill-judged quote, is he serious? And most revealing in towing the party line – it was Putin himself who most vociferously complained about the West supposedly cancelling Russian music and literary culture. Perhaps a medal could be in order for Mr Kempf … Who knew that a recital in Omsk could be this valuable to an international career?

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Good old self-interest. It will prevail every time.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Maybe lobotomised, virtue-signalling groupthink is melting. Musicians also need to eat.

  • Bob ZX10 says:

    So how many artists cancelled their tours of America after it’s illegal invasion of Iraq? What hypocrisy.

    • Simpson says:

      You are missing the crucial point. Performing arts and artists in Russia are almost entirely government funded, there it means Putin funded. No US president funds touring artists and music festivals, and to the extent federal funding of performing arts exists in the US, it is minimal.

  • Rob says:

    To easy to label Putin a criminal but many conveniently forget the atrocities committed under the label “freedom & democracy”.
    Art is art, and those who intend to politicise art really have no idea of what art & talent are.

  • JLE says:

    To be honest, music is an essential gift that has the power to unite us all on a human level, i.e. it appeals to all of us regardless of nationality, ideology, background, politics, or even language. As such, it should not be used as a political tool to reinforce the differences that already exist between people to fuel a permanent extreme polarization of the world. Crimes against humanity are unforgivable. However, music and arts are timeless and above our conflicts between peoples. I would say, if through music we can come together and put aside our differences even for a moment, and coexist as equal humans while we are moved by music on a basic level, at least some hope can exist, (even if we cannot agree on anything else!!), rather than focusing on using music and arts to reinforce all divisions. During the gravest time of the cold war (think real risk of total annihilation), there was still some artistic exchange between eastern and western blocks, which seen in retrospective, kept some level of hope of coexisting alive.

  • Money talks says:

    Money talks louder to some than others.
    My support is for the Ukrainian children and civilian elderly who were enslaved and murdered by Putin’s orders.
    These crimes will be remembered.

  • Toddcs says:

    Right on. And in fact, I am myself seriously considering moving from my native USA to Russia, although I am not a musician at all, but only a lowly software engineer.

    I am fourth-generation American. But as it happens, my Russian-language skills are quite good, and that should help me a lot to get acclimated.

    But on the other hand, even Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Oistrakh (and most of their contemporaries) are no longer giving performances in Russia. Nor have they indicated that they have plans or even hopes of doing so ever again.

    What are we to make of that?

    Well, I suppose that if they could, they certainly would! 😉

  • horbus rohebian says:

    Kempf disfigures the distinction of the other Kempff. A pathetic reason (cancel culture).

  • Ben says:

    Strange comments from Kempf. Cancel culture?! I’d say more ‘war crimes’. He’ll probably accuse us of being ‘woke’ now, but I’d hope fixers take note of this.

  • Lesly Popescu says:

    Why dont you surprise that many european musicians still sing in USA? USA killed people including women and children in Yugoslavia, Afganistan, Bosnia, Iran, Libya, Vietnam and many other countries.
    Shame on them, right?

  • MB says:

    Why is performing in a country considered a sign of support for its leader. Should Republicans now refuse to perform in the U.S.?

    • Simpson says:

      Because Russian propaganda makes a big deal out of and it makes very sure concerts of foreign musicians are presented as support for the country and, explicitly or implicitly, its leader. It works there that way. For Putin it is important be a presence at the world stage, such foreign artists help him and the propaganda machine.

  • Denis Plutalov says:

    These musicians have little or no moral values. Welcome to Putin’s collaborators’ list!

  • Nina says:

    That’s nice. But why young talented Russian conductors and musicians (which have nothing with politics) cannot reach the top because of some “foreign” persons took “their” places?
    It was reported… like a lot of theatres (including Bolshoi) and orchestras HAVE NO principal conductors (!). That means there is NO development of the repertoire, orchestral techniques and a bunch of related things.
    People from “departments” think about their pockets, not about culture.
    Do you know the Glinka’s birthplace Smolensk’ Chamber Orchestra still HAVE NO principal conductor despite there was a great candidate who is the winner of a lot of competitions as a conductor and violinist, and was also David Oistrakh’s pupil’ student?
    Those people don’t need culture. They destroy the culture. And then “make a hype” with the invititation of some foreigners back while there are a lot of talented professionals in Russia.