Thursday 26 August 2010

Svetlana Belsky's Busoni

The time came, as it inevitably must, in any DMA program, when the Director of Doctoral Studies looks sternly at the class and asks if all are ready to submit their dissertation proposals. The program in question was a performance doctorate; and we had just recently found out exactly how many degree recitals were required for graduation! So the answer all around was a pained “no”. I searched my brain for ideas, none came, but, undaunted (or not much), I appealed to the fount of all wisdom, pianistic and otherwise, my dear teacher, Nina Svetlanova.

The gleam in her eye was more frightening than the Director’s frown. It appeared that she had been waiting for the question – and had the answer. Shortly, I found myself with a well-thumbed tome in my hands, a masterpiece written by her own teacher that badly needed translating into English and I was just the person to do it (having command of Russian and English, a love for the piano and an inability to say no). The book was Busoni by Grigory Kogan (GK’s original one-word title, standing like a marble statue), putting it down once I started reading was impossible, and practicing suffered greatly for the space of those few days. (Little did I know how much future practicing time would suffer, along with teaching, housekeeping and motherhood, in the course of the writing itself!).

That first reading was somewhat of an interactive experience. I was frequently heard muttering to myself about the fabulousness of this idea or another, and occasionally bursting out with an “aha, so this is where that genius fingering from my last lesson came from!” The wheel of time turns inexorably, and, since the publication of the book in January, my own students, presented with some pearl of wisdom, have been known to exclaim – “this is right out of Chapter 11!”

Like most young pianists, I had only a passing acquaintance with the name Ferruccio Busoni. I knew him as a fabled pianist of the Golden Age, and the composer of impossibly difficult works. The name of Grigory Kogan, on the other hand, was very familiar to me. To any pianist, and, indeed, musician, brought up in the Russian-speaking world, he was a legend and a giant. The great Russian and Soviet pianistic tradition would not have existed without Kogan’s teaching, playing and writing. Other great pedagogues wrote works about the “hows” of piano playing, Kogan discussed the “whys”, those psychological aspects of listening, imagining, practicing and performance, without which any pianist, no matter how technically proficient, can never become an artist. Many of Kogan’s iconic works on piano playing unfortunately remain un-translated and unpublished, but I may quote them in my lessons with impunity!

Kogan’s Busoni as Pianist (the translation’s new and more precise title) s the first and only work of its kind – dedicated to painstaking study and discussion of Busoni’s place in the pianistic Pantheon. It is Kogan’s fascinating thesis that, unlike many great pianists whose careers shine bright but change nothing in the prevailing zeitgeist, Busoni’s contribution to the history of piano playing is as revolutionary and game-changing as that of Liszt, Chopin or Anton Rubinstein. Busoni’s esthetic was radically opposite that of the decadent style of Hofman and Leschetizky, in all aspects of technique, sound production, repertoire and even general approach, and served as a sort of counterweight. My very favorite chapter of the book contrasts the recordings of the Liszt-Verdi Rigoletto Paraphrase by Busoni himself and Anna Essipova, Leschetizky’s favorite student and wife; the revelation here is that Essipova’s playing is much more immediately attractive and pleasant, Busoni’s takes time and effort to understand and appreciate, and then becomes irresistible. The school of piano playing that emerged in the years after WWII, especially the Russian, is a wonderful amalgam of the two great movements of the decades before, and was indelibly influenced by Busoni’s art.

Outside of Busoni’s importance as a study of both theory and history of piano playing, the book is fascinating as a product of its time and place. Written (or, at least published) in 1964, during that brief period of relaxation of Soviet government’s iron censorship of every aspect of creative and literary life, the book was still required to include the prescribed amount of genuflection towards the powers that be and the usual socialist-realist cant which any Soviet reader would simply ignore. Because I cannot imagine that any reader not schooled in the art of instinctively skipping, on even the first reading, any paragraphs which include the word “bourgeois” and “Lenin”, will be able to discard those passages written clearly and exclusively for the censor, I felt it was imperative to provide an in-depth explanation of the “life and times” of the book. Lovers of history, or those not well acquainted with the history of the Soviet Union, might enjoy both the products of my own labors, and the little vignette of the time now passed unlamented.

Svetlana Belsky's translation of Grigory Kogan's classic study, Busoni as Pianist, is now available, published by the University of Rochester Press. An excerpt from this beautifully translated work will be published in a later post.

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