Festival Reveals Piano Gems From A Siberian Prison

Zaderafsky, shown in his gulag pass card of 1939 (inset), composed piano preludes on blank telegram forms.
Vsevolod Zaderatsky, shown in his gulag pass card of 1939 (inset), composed piano preludes on telegram forms.
By Rebecca Schmid

GOHRISCH, Germany – The International Shostakovich Days confirmed itself this year as one of the festival circuit’s best kept secrets. Now in its fifth iteration (June 19-21), the annual event in this mountainside town outside Dresden operates on a modest budget, maintaining an unadulterated focus on music-making. All artists, from leading soloists such as Andreas Scholl to the players of the Staatskapelle Dresden, perform in exchange for room and board only. Although concerts take place in a barn with seating for 510 people, its concrete walls and rectangular shape offer acoustics which approximate that of a shoebox-style hall. While the program, which revolved around Shostakovich, Pärt, and the virtually unknown Vsevolod Zaderatsky, was not always cohesive, there were gems to be discovered.

Jascha Nemtsov played Zaderafsky's complete cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. (© Matthias Creutziger)
Jascha Nemtsov played Zaderatsky’s 24 preludes and fugues. (© Matthias Creutziger)

The most exciting, if tragic, revelation was a cycle of preludes and fugues by Zaderatsky, performed in their entirety for the first time,  by the Russian-born pianist Jascha Nemtsov. The composer, persecuted by the Stalinist regime in large part because of his role as the last music teacher to the Tsar’s family, wrote the 24 works on telegram paper during imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag. While much of his music was destroyed, these works miraculously made it into the hands of his son, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, Jr., who in the 1970s began the painstaking process of deciphering and copying them onto full-sized note paper. When Nemtsov came across the music three years ago, he at first put them to the side because of their difficulty, but eventually decided to take on the challenge.

As performed in two afternoon concerts, the works reveal a melodic invention and mastery of form that establish Zaderatsky as a major voice in 20th-century piano music. The works have clear roots in the two-voiced preludes and fugues of Bach while revealing the influence of everyone from Debussy to Prokofiev, yet without sounding derivative. Some preludes, such as that in D-flat major, are positively song-like, while the F minor Prelude is strictly neo-Baroque. The stormy E minor and E-flat minor works convey Zaderatsky’s confinement, while the B major Prelude achieves a cinematic quality that becomes augmented with the syncopated rhythms of the following fugue. The climbing left-hand motive of the D major Prelude made me think of Ligeti — a composer whom Zaderatsky never could have heard — while the fugue builds upon a long, Bachian theme that breaks out into wide, playful leaps.

The works consistently demand tremendous virtuosity from both hands, with layered, unexpectedly shifting textures. (A sampling, available at YouTube, is at right.) Nemtsov’s performance can only be described as a virtuosic feat. He brought out the individual character of each piece while maintaining immaculate technique, tiring only slightly at the end of the G-flat major Prelude in the second concert. He brought the same refined sensitivity as an accompanist to other works by Zaderatsky. The duo Nightingale Garden received its world premiere on the opening evening, but unlike the preludes and fugues had little new to say, with florid exchanges between flute (Staatskapelle soloist Rozália Szabó) and piano that are mildly charming but grow repetitive.

[Editor’s note: Read a fascinating essay about the composer’s creativity and periods of suppression, as well as testimonials on his behalf by colleagues attempting to protect him, assembled by Zaderatsky, Jr., here.]

Arvo Pärt’s Wallfahrtslied was given its German premiere.
Arvo Pärt’s ‘Wallfahrtslied’ was given its German premiere.

Shostakovich and Pärt dominated the rest of this program, in performances anchored by string players of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Yet these fine orchestral players struggled to form a homogeneous whole and rendered the concise gestures of both composers with an excessively voluminous, Romantic tone, from Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Quartet to Pärt’s Vater Unser for countertenor (the pure-voiced Scholl) and string quintet. The glassy textures in the second half of Pärt’s Wallfahrtslied for countertenor and string quartet, here in its German premiere, proved an exception. Concertmaster  Matthias Wollong also gave a vivid performance of Shostakovich’s unfinished Sonata for Violin and Piano, from searing long lines to rough attacks above the jesting keyboard (Paul Rivinius).

If the chamber playing had not been consistently stellar, that all changed with the arrival of the Borodin Quartet the following evening. The legendary ensemble’s first generation shared a close relationship with Shostakovich, not least in the first performance of the Eighth String Quartet. The work has iconic meaning in Gohrisch. Shostakovich penned it on site in 1960, just after being pressured into joining the Communist Party. It is the only work he wrote outside the Soviet Union. Violist Igor Naidin, upon accepting the festival’s annual Shostakovich Prize on behalf of the quartet, said it was a unique day, since the Borodin Quartet has performed the Eighth more than any other work.

The Borodin Quartet played string quartets by Shostakovich and Mjakowski. (© Matthias Creutziger)
The Borodin Quartet played Shostakovich and Myaskowski. (© Matthias Creutziger)

The players’ spacious pace and economy of gesture offered a lesson in great music-making. They achieved a symphonic blend when coming together but maintained sinuous, incisive tone on the self-reflexive, mourning D-S-C-H motive that penetrates the work. There was a long pause before the applause began, as if the audience was trying to come to terms with what it had just heard. Opening the program was Shostakovich’s Sixth Quartet, performed with the same understated elegance and emotional directness, and the Thirteenth String Quartet of Nikolai Myaskovsky, a composer whom Shostakovich revered, as made clear by the fugato of the opening Moderato movement.

While the strength of the International Shostakovich Days in previous years has been its ability to unearth connections between Shostakovich and other composers, this year’s juxtaposition of Shostakovich and Pärt turned out to be less illuminating, mostly because the Staatskapelle players never quite warmed to the latter’s style. In a matinee performance, the bare, chiming percussion of Pärt’s These Words received a new context, but the strings’ full-bodied tone often upset the balance. Excerpts from Shostakovich’s film music to Das neue Babylon opened the program in an expert reading by conductor  Vladimir Jurowski, who had teased out every quote from the sardonic Can Can to the Russian funeral march Unsterbliche Opfer.

The final concert was rich in rare works, from Pärt’s Quintettino — an early work for winds set firmly in the composer’s modernist period before it breaks from pointillist patterns into a jeering melody — to a selection of songs by Zaderatsky. The bronze timbre and smoldering ferocity of mezzo-soprano Maria Gortsevskaya, accompanied by Nemtsov, was particularly well suited to the stormy Unwetter (Thunderstorm), all the more powerful as sung in a concrete barn on a hilltop, exposed to the natural elements. It was a reminder of the precarious conditions under which the works were composed, and the very circumstances that shaped the entire opus of Shostakovich.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, GramophoneMusical America Worldwide and other publications.