“Cats Are Indescribably Wonderful, Shostakovich’s Fugues Less So”: On Elizabeth Wilson’s “Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia”

By Tim RileyAugust 4, 2022

“Cats Are Indescribably Wonderful, Shostakovich’s Fugues Less So”: On Elizabeth Wilson’s “Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia”

Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia by Elizabeth Wilson

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH LIKED to tell a story about the legendary pianist Maria Yudina and her riveting 1953 radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488. Apparently, the music wafted into Joseph Stalin’s quarters, and, smitten, he requested a tape of her performance be pressed onto shellac and delivered to him by morning. He never woke up to hear it, though, since he suffered his fatal heart attack later that night. The story — too good for reality, perfect as myth — has lingered as a testament to Yudina’s artistry; Armando Iannucci even opens his buckled farce The Death of Stalin (2017) with a dramatization of the scene. In Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia, Elizabeth Wilson closes the door on the tale as history in her first appendix.

What’s beyond mythic is how Yudina plays Mozart’s disconsolate slow movement. This adagio (in F-sharp minor), made more poignant by the enchantments of its major-mode bookends, has a delicate instability that stays with you, and Yudina’s relatively slow tempo doesn’t lag so much as echo some ancient internal grief. Her pianism has an uncanny transparency, as though her fingers channel some higher realm of expression.

That such Yudina stories even circulated tells us a lot about how prized classical music remained in Soviet Russia long after the Bolsheviks mowed down the aristocracy. As Stalin’s psychosis grew, Communist Party doctrine kept moving the goalposts as to where “acceptable” art lay and where “degenerate” art began when his purges commenced in the early 1930s. Stylistic traits like “formalism” became abject sins, only to be recast as virtues. Composers, painters, and performers maneuvered through minefields while cultivating underground networks.

Maria Yudina was one of the lucky ones never to have been imprisoned, but her life reads like a promise robbed. She was born in 1899, the fourth of five children, in the largely agnostic Jewish town of Nevel, a small city in the Pale of Settlement (near today’s Belarus, east of Lithuania). Her early teachers included Theodor Leschetizky in St. Petersburg (who also taught Artur Schnabel, Mieczysław Horszowski, and Ignaz Friedman). She followed her next teacher, Felix Blumenfeld, to Kiev, and then to Moscow, where she joined fervid intellectual circles of musicians, philosophers, novelists, historians, political theorists, and every stripe of eccentric. Yudina returned to Nevel for the summers, where,

by sheer coincidence[,] some of the country’s best philosophical minds, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Matvei Kagan, Valentin Voloshinov, and Boris Zubakin, [gathered] around the time of the Revolution. The leading spirit among this circle of thinkers around Bakhtin was the literary critic, Lev Vasilyevich Pumpyansky.

Bakhtin and the poet Boris Pasternak became her lifelong friends, both men respecting Yudina’s mind even above her musicianship. (Playing With Fire includes a picture of Yudina at Pasternak’s grave in 1970, on the 10th anniversary of his death, four months before she herself died.) Bakhtin observed, as only men in that era could, that “she had a rather rare ability for philosophical thought. As you know […] there are many who can philosophize in this world, but few who can become philosophers — Yudina was amongst that number. She could have become a philosopher, something which is even rarer in women.” As part of this intellectual circle, Yudina participated in readings and informal salons, and translated St. Augustine’s Confessions from German into Russian, “before asking herself why — there already existed a good translation into Russian from the original Latin.”

Yudina converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in her early twenties, eventually joining a radical schism known as the Josephites. She identified with Bach’s religiosity, clinging to the idea that you couldn’t really perform his music without a belief in the divine trinity. She also developed a theory about how his choral work informed his instrumental pieces. As her career developed, the Soviet state twisted itself into pretzels figuring out which Bach was “non-spiritual” and therefore acceptable, stoking a furious underground that Yudina symbolized. Wilson depicts Yudina’s faith as deeply intuitive; as a student, for example, Yudina suffered a catastrophic injury: “[Her] thumb was nearly severed from the hand — it was only attached by a tendon — the cut was that deep. Marila had been wielding a scythe, with next to no skill. […] By some miracle the wound healed and her pianism did not suffer.”

Somehow, Yudina eluded Stalin’s secret police even as she watched many of her closest friends get shipped off to the Gulag camps, to be tortured (and worse). Her onstage charisma explains only part of this providence. After graduation, she served as a generous and exacting piano teacher and chamber music coach at the Moscow Conservatoire, but was fired for her openly religious views. Wilson, a cellist herself as well as a distinguished biographer of Dmitri Shostakovich, actually heard Yudina play during a Mstislav Rostropovich cello class in the late 1960s, and recalls the wild rumors about her legend: “[S]he slept in her coffin (untrue), she slept in her bath (partially true, in her first Moscow apartment she slept on top of boards placed over the bathtub), she was a nun (untrue), she was Stalin’s favourite pianist (as already mentioned, probably a legend).”

Yudina already enjoys an untranslated Russian biographer in Anatoli Kuznetsov, who claimed that Mozart was “the Sun radiating out from the centre of Yudina’s solar system.” But Wilson frames her story for a Western audience with exactitude and an ear for Yudina’s swelling repertoire. Luckily, thanks to radio broadcasts and her beloved reputation, many of Yudina’s recordings show up on YouTube and other streaming services. Renowned for warhorses like Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, Opus 106, and his final sonata (Opus 111), she also recorded Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, the Goldberg Variations, and many transcriptions of his Chorales. She often served up premieres by her classmates, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, her four-hand partners at private gatherings. She famously began performing Chopin’s Preludes, Opus 28, as a set, a previously uncommon way to program them.

Wilson emphasizes the ambitious programming during this era, before audiences had fully adjusted to recordings and early modernist threads began gaining attention. Yudina turned Prokofiev’s Fourth Sonata and Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata into anchoring works, though neither have yet entered the mainstream. She also focused on their chamber music, along with forgotten works by the then-famous Sergei Taneyev (who taught both Rachmaninov and Scriabin).

To study Yudina’s legacy is to trace the fertile intellectual life of prerevolutionary Russia, showing the overlap that commonly occurred between philosophers and architects, poets and composers, musicians and painters. In this milieu, one’s talent was not necessarily limited by one’s specialty. Yudina herself pursued courses in philosophy, and produced the first Soviet stagings of Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus in 1948. She greeted Stravinsky’s return to Moscow at the age of 80 in 1961 as if ushering a deity back into his rightful kingdom.

Yudina’s style blends emotional candor with riveting technique, even as some glissando washes shed notes in favor of sweep. Her fingers channel an inimitable voice, the sound of someone conversing with greatness, and finding her own emotional spaces amid the written notes. Flashes of humor dart in and out of her Beethovenian profundities, reminding us that the recording era has tended to homogenize such singular stylings. To hear Yudina open Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with its simple G major chord is to realize that we take him too seriously and oversimplify the weightier elements of his music; the darts of silliness Yudina flirts with create larger contrasts, making the familiar repertoire sound bigger, more full of possibilities, than many modern renditions. Her appetite extended well into the chamber repertoire, where she championed little-known pieces like William Walton’s Piano Quartet, Hindemith’s instrumental sonatas, and now-obscure works like Galina Ustvolskaya’s Violin Sonata.

You would expect such a large, inimitable sensibility to be full of opinions, and Yudina shared a lot of insight through her letters. She didn’t find Van Cliburn’s bombast at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition impressive because of “his dated repertoire.” And here’s how she wrote to a friend about Shostakovich’s tribute to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier:

“[T]he more closely I study Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, the less inspiring I find them.” What were these works compared to cats, she asked, enthusing about her own cat, Kisanov, whose tail “reaches all the way to Ostankino, who runs up and down my Shakespearean staircase, knocks at my window and prefers Mozart to Bach! […] Cats are indescribably wonderful, Shostakovich’s fugues less so.”

Wilson’s narrative, while patchy and frequently stalled in program details and obscure relationships among performers, rewards persistence. To start with, she brings an eye for the avalanche of contradictions the Soviet regime imposed:

Paradoxically, censorship ensured the extremely high standard of literary translation in Soviet Russia. Poets like Akhmatova and Mandelstam, unable to publish their original work, resorted to translation in order to earn money. From the late 1930s Pasternak became known for his brilliant translations of Shakespeare’s plays, and later of Goethe’s Faust. The poets may have resented the time taken from their own work, yet Soviet readers reaped great benefit from their wonderful translations.

Chronicling an epic life lived among an artistic community that seemed to thrive almost because of its oppression, Wilson draws a portrait of creativity in conflict amid desperate circumstances:

It was precisely during the war years that members of the Soviet intelligentsia and the most eminent musicians joined the Communist Party out of patriotism, amongst them David Oistrakh, the conductor Kirill Kondrashin, and the pianists Yakov Flier and Yakov Zak. Although equally patriotic, Yudina rejected out of hand any involvement with the Bolshevik Party, which had so mercilessly persecuted her fellow believers. Now, during the war, religious repression was eased, for the Church was useful to the Party in galvanizing patriotic war efforts.

And this:

In a handwritten list of 153 pieces that she broadcast from July 1941 to June 1943, we see how her repertoire emphasized the patriotic, from Glinka to Rachmaninov, from Borodin to Prokofiev. She also played Chopin and Beethoven regularly; she noted that she deliberately ignored Schumann — who knows, perhaps one of his descendants was fighting with the Nazi troops? There were also special broadcasts to Allied countries: for instance, Yudina chose to acquaint British audiences with Shaporin’s Second Piano Sonata.

Yudina’s late career centered around a piano reduction of Stravinsky’s Orpheus and a collaboration with Pasternak on Russian translations of Schubert’s lieder, all while watching the resurgence of Russia’s artistic status as Leonard Bernstein brought the New York Philharmonic’s keening version of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937) to Russian concert halls in 1959. “I was the last Soviet-Russian citizen to see Bernstein at the airport,” she bragged. Amid increasing ailments in her final years, she took on more literary work, translating Felix Weingartner’s book on Beethoven’s symphonies from the German, as well as violinist Joseph Szigeti’s memoirs With Strings Attached from the Hungarian (a manuscript still unpublished). Indefatigable to the end, Yudina regained consciousness from a diabetic episode in November 1970 to say, “Death too is a feat!”


Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. He recently launched the riley rock report audio newsletter. See his personal website for details.

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Author Tim Riley writes the riley rock report on Substack.


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