Alexander GOLDENWEISER (1875–1961)

Alexander Goldenweiser

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Alexander Borisovich Goldenweiser was born in Kishinyov (now Chişinău in Moldova) on 26 February (10 March, new style) 1875. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was an accomplished pianist and singer who introduced her son to the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Alexander was taught to read music by his elder sister, Tatyana, and began to play the piano himself. The family moved to Moscow in 1883, whereupon Alexander started to receive his first serious music lessons from Vasily Prokunin, a pupil of Tchaikovsky and a famous collector of folksongs. In 1889 he entered the Moscow Conservatory where he studied the piano with Siloti, then Pabst, graduating in 1895, and composition with Arensky, Ippolitov-Ivanov and Taneyev, graduating in 1897. He had already made his debut in 1896, in a series of duet recitals with Rachmaninov, Taneyev and Goedicke. In 1901 a circle of ‘Scriabinists’ was formed by Goldenweiser with the pianist Mariya Nemenova-Lunts, the conductor Konstantin Saradzhev, the writer Vladimir Derzhanovsky and others; he also played an active role in the Society for the Friends of the Scriabin Museum formed in Moscow in 1922.

As a young man, Goldenweiser was on particularly close terms with Lev Tolstoy: he met him in January 1896 and remained on close terms with him until his death. He stayed at Yasnaya Polyana and frequently played to Tolstoy. Goldenweiser kept a record of Tolstoy’s remarks and took notes about the daily life at and visitors to the house. Goldenweiser was not Tolstoy’s official biographer, and this unusual position gave him a good deal of freedom; his report of his friendship and time spent with the writer was published as Vblizi Tolstogo (‘Close to Tolstoy’). Goldenweiser always had a pencil and notebook with him, and he had the gift of writing things down unnoticed. He thus preserved the characteristics of Tolstoy’s spoken language for posterity. He even copied letters from Tolstoy, his friends and acquaintances into his notebook. His record of the last year of Tolstoy’s life – 1910 – is particularly detailed, making up almost half of Goldenweiser’s book.[1] Tolstoy’s only known musical composition was a Waltz in F which Goldenweiser wrote down after the writer had played it to him in February 1906.

Goldenweiser started teaching early – he was only fifteen when he began giving private lessons. From 1897 to 1918 he taught at the St Nicolas Institute for orphans (the Nikolayevskiy sirotskiy institute). After a spell teaching at the Moscow Philharmonic School (1904–6), he was appointed professor of piano in the Conservatoire (replacing Josef Lhevinne), a post he held continuously for 55 years until his death in 1961 (he was the director of the institution twice: in 1922–24 and 1939–42). He recorded his own trio (and that of Catoire) with Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow, his own only six months before his death. He also worked with Dmitry Tsïganov and Alexander Shirinsky, recording Rachmaninov’s first Trio elégiaque with them; with David Oistrakh (recording both Catoire sonatas), and Grigory Ginzburg (recording the Rachmaninov Second Suite). Among his solo recordings, particularly notable are a series of Chopin mazurkas (recorded in 1946), several pieces by Tchaikovsky and Scriabin’s Promethée with Golovanov. A Doctor of Arts, he was made a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1946; in 1955 his flat was opened as a museum.[2] He died on 26 November 1961 in Moscow.

During his long teaching career Goldenweiser played a vital role in the development of Soviet music education. In 1932, for example, he established with first Central Special Music School (which still stands at the Nikitskiye vorota, near the Conservatory, for which it serves as a preparatory institute). He aimed at the all-round musical development of his pupils, and he sought to discover in each of them their individuality. His students included many distinguished virtuosi, educators and composers such as Sulamita Aronovsky, Dmitry Bashkirov, Lazar Berman, Dmitry Blagoy, Samuil Feinberg, Vladimir Fere, Grigory Ginzburg, Dmitry Kabalevsky, Nikolay Kapustin, Vladimir Nechayev, Tatyana Nikolayeva and Dmitry Paperno.

During his student years, his pianism was much influenced by his friendships with his classmates Rachmaninov and Scriabin. But it is arguable that his composition teacher – Taneyev, the master contrapuntist – had the most significant influence on Goldenweiser as pianist (and, thus, also as composer). The manner in which he brings out the subtle contrapuntal intricacies of Chopin mazurkas (works that are not usually approached from this point), and the way in which he appears totally at ease within the complex textures of Catoire’s sonatas for violin and piano[3] both suggest that consideration of counterpoint was at the heart of Goldenweiser’s approach to music. It is also possible that Busoni, another master of contrapuntal playing and composition exerted an early influence on Goldenweiser, who told Neuhaus that during Busoni’s period as a professor in Moscow (1890–91) his ‘interpretations were intelligent, definite, technically perfect, extraordinarily objective (without any hyper-romanticism)’.[4] Since the contrapuntal aspects of both Goldenweiser’s playing and composition are so highly developed, it is surely no coincidence that two of his students – Feinberg and Nikolayeva – are regarded as among the finest of Bach performers. Goldenweiser’s playing, noted for its style, precise technique and fidelity to the text, was academic in the best sense of the word. His principles of performance and study are reflected in the articles he wrote and in his compositions for the piano.

According to Jean-Charles Hoffelé,

Goldenweiser almost effaced his reputation as a pianist by that he gained as a great teacher during the last half century of his life. Although his youth was punctuated with brilliant concert appearances, later on this musicians’ musician drew back into intense research activities. He developed a type of playing that was anticonformist, in which colour and variety of sound were paramount. […] If Medtner particularly appreciated Goldenweiser, Rachmaninoff[5] equally considered him one of his greatest interpreters, dedicating his Second Suite for two pianos two him. Like Feinberg, he was more composer-pianist than pianist-composer, and his playing is evidence of this.[6]

Goldenweiser was modest about his work as a composer, and few people were aware of his activities in this sphere. Many of his mature compositions were published only just before or after his death. Although his students, for example, knew that he composed, few heard his music, and he did not talk about it. He composed in two main periods of his life: the first stretching from his student days until around 1912, the second commencing only after an almost thirty-year gap. He wrote his first published work at the age of twelve and his last a few weeks before his death.[7] This long interval meant that the ‘principal features of his mature style did not appear gradually but, on the contrary, came about suddenly’.[8] The new style was ‘significantly more original, and linked to the polyphony of Russian folksong’.[9] Among the earlier compositions piano pieces and songs predominate, although his first orchestral work – the Dante Overture – also dates from this period (it was written in 1895–97), as does a cantata for the 100th anniversary of the Yekaterinsky Institute, of 1903, now lost. Among the early piano works, mention should be made of a set of variations (1897),[10] the collections of pieces, Opp. 3 and 4,[11] the Two Impromptus, Op. 6, the 12 Miniatures, Op. 7, and the Two Preludes, Op. 10. The second group reveals a tendency towards more monumental forms, with three operas ,[12] the cantata Svet oktyabrya (‘The Light of October’, 1947), a Scene from Faust (1960), two Russian Suites for orchestra (1944), a string quartet (started in 1896 but revised and completed in 1940), the monumental Piano Trio,[13] a Poem for violin and piano (1958) and all the piano works included on this disc.[14]

[1] In consideration for Tolstoy’s widow, only excerpts of Goldenweiser’s book were published in journals in 1915. An abridged book edition appeared in Russia in 1922, and, in 1959, an unabridged edition was published, but it, too, lacked the crucial year 1910.

[2] It is highly unusual for a flat or house to be opened as a museum during the lifetime of the subject. The fact that many of Tolstoy’s effects are on display accounts for this anomaly. The flat is described in detail in Julie Anne Sadie and Stanley Sadie, Calling on the Composer: A Guide to European Composer Houses and Museums, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005, pp. 180–81.

[3] The second of these, entitled Poème, is dedicated to Goldenweiser. Of the many other works dedicated to him, one should note the Four Lyric Fragments, Op. 4, by Medtner, the Suite, Op. 11 (No. 1) by Samuil Feinberg and the Poème-Fantaisie, Op. 7, No. 3, by Alexander Krein, another Jewish composer in the Scriabin circle in the first decade of the century. Goldenweiser dedicated his Deux Préludes, Op. 10, to Medtner.

[4] Neuhaus wrote a memoir-critique of Busoni, originally published in a Moscow Conservatory centenary publication, and later included in a collection of Neuhaus’ writings edited and translated by his pupil Valery Voskoboynikov, Riflessioni, memorie, diari, Sellerio Editore, Palermo, 2002, p. 163.

[5] Goldenweiser was also responsible for making the piano score of what is arguably Rachmaninov’s masterpiece, Kokola (‘The Bells’).

[6] Un visionnaire du nouveau piano russe’, Dante hpc103

[7] He finished the small piano piece Meditation in November 1961, partly as a response to Ginzburg’s final illness (cf. A. B. Goldenweiser, Dnevnik (‘Diary’), Tortuga, Moscow, 2 vols., 1995 and 1997, Vol. 1, p. 281, n. 48.

[8] Dmitry Blagoy, ‘Velikaya sila primera’ (‘The great power of example’), V klasse Gol’denveyzera, Muzïka, Moscow, 1986, p. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] These are referred to in Goldenweiser’s diary entry for 25 May 1897 (cf. Dnevnik, op cit., Vol. 1, p. 84).

[11] These consist of seven pieces, including the Variations on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 3, No. 1. They were grouped into two sets in 1902 by the publisher Jurgenson.

[12] These works are Pir vo vremya chumï (‘The Feast in Time of Plague’), after Pushkin, Op. 21, 1942 (first performed at the Central House of Composers in Moscow on 1 June 1945); Pevtsï (‘The Singers’), after Turgenev, Op. 22, 1942–44 (first performed at the House of Actors, Moscow, 19 Jan 1945); Veshniye void (‘Spring Waters’), after Turgenev, Op. 26, 1945–50 (first performed at the House of Actors, Moscow, 4 March 1955). These works were never staged: all the premieres are concert performances.

[13] Tchaikovsky wrote his piano trio on the death of Nikolay Rubinstein in 1881; in 1893 Rachmaninoff wrote his (second) Trio elégiaque in memory of Tchaikovsky. Some 60 years on, in 1953, Goldenweiser completed his Piano Trio, Op. 31, in memory of his friend Rachmaninoff. All three composers use variation form in their works, and the set of variations dominates Goldenweiser’s work entirely.

[14] For reasons of space, the Polyphonic Sonatina (1952), the Kabardino-Balkar Songs and Dances, Memento mori and other miscellaneous pieces are not included. Goldenweiser, however, recorded one of the songs and dances.