This optimistic Tragedy - A final interview with Tatiana Nikolaeva

During a recent chamber cycle in Antwerp a large part of which was devoted to Shostakovich's piano music, DSCH's Philippe Vandenbroek was fortunate enough to find the opportunity to talk with Tatiana Nikolaeva. The meeting took place in the large meeting room of the Antwerp Royal Conservatory, were she was found practising for the Second Piano Trio.

DSCH: Perhaps you could give us a short overview of the friendship you enjoyed with Shostakovich through the years?

TN: Our friendship began in Leipzig in 1950 and ended on his last day in 1975. During this entire period we were very good friends. Of course I had met Shostakovich many times before 1950 during his professorship at the Conservatory where I graduated in composition. But our friendship properly dates back to 1950, to the Bach festivities after the second world war. He was there as an honorary guest and as member of the jury at the piano competition where I, as a 26 year-old girl, was participating.
Perhaps I provoked him a little by preparing the whole Woltemperierte Klavier. He was really excited about this and of course I captured the first prize. But I know I won another first prize that day, and a much more important one: the friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich. You can imagine how important this was for me as a young girl. A few days after we went back to Moscow he invited me to his home and played some of the Preludes and Fugues, op.87. From then on, he did this almost every day. I have seen many things in my life, but this process was one of the most impressive. How accurately he confined his musical thoughts to paper! 

He was always busy with music. This creative process was non-stop, and not merely limited to "working hours". It is even more remarkable in view of his various other commitments. He travelled often and had many other responsibilities. Nevertheless, every day there were new Preludes and Fugues. On one of my visits he said to me. "Today no Preludes and Fugues. I will play you something of my Tenth Symphony". And then there was the Fifth String Quartet too. So he worked on many pieces at once. Yes, that was very remarkable.

So, this was really the beginning of our friendship. From then on I followed his creative career very closely and I was present at almost all the premières, like those of the Tenth Symphony and the First Violin Concerto. As for opus 87, I had no idea that I was to play the whole cycle, because he himself was an outstanding keyboard player. "Laureate of the Chopin Competition". Yes, he was very proud of that. He used to tell me how he played Scarlatti sonatas, or the Hammerklavier or a Schubert Sonata. He did play the cycle once at the Composers' Union, but that didn't come off well. 
He was too nervous and played inaccurately. And there was criticism of the formalistic tendencies of the work. So it was not performed any more. I was furious, because l knew that it was a very important work and so I suggested playing a few Preludes and Fugues myself. Generously, he handed me the manuscript, the only manuscript in existence: a treasure that robbed me of my peace of mind!

When I started practising, I became even more excited than before and it was only then that I took up the plan to prepare the whole cycle. He agreed and, in fact, we often worked together on it. I then played the work to the same people of the Composers' Union: I thank God he was not in Moscow that day! The work met with great success: it was hailed as one of his most beautiful compositions. I often played selections of the work in other programmes dedicated to his chamber music, but I performed it also in its entirety, spread over two evenings. Why in its entirety? According to Shostakovich himself, the whole work, from the first to the very last bar, was supported by a huge dramatic structure. That was his opinion, and it is an important consideration in the interpretation of this monumental composition.

 How would you describe, in a few words, the personality of Shostakovich? What impression did he make as a human being?

You know for me he was a human being in capital letters ("Ein Mensch vom grossen Buchstaben"). He was very modest, very simple, human and warm-hearted. People were always bothering him with all kinds of problems, but I never knew him to turn anyone down. He was a very delicate and sensitive man. But his modesty was, in view of his triumphant success, altogether remarkable. Another trait which was very manifest was his sense of humour. And he really loved to socialize with his good friends.

Of course there was his stern self-discipline, too. He always worked, even when he was ill. First, there was the paralysis of his right hand (that happened in Paris while he was playing the Second Piano Concerto under Andre Cluytens). This ended his career as a pianist. After that he had problems with his knees, and finally there was cancer. But on he worked up to almost his final day. He never heard his final work, the Viola Sonata, which was scheduled at a concert along with a few Preludes and Fugues and one of his string quartets. He was dead by then.

DSCH: Do you consider as trustworthy the portrait that emerges from the pages of Testimony, edited by Solomon Volkov? Is that the man that you knew for twenty-five years?

 You know this is not so typical (she slaps the back of the book attentively). No, it is not typical (with greater emphasis). And I think that Maxim Shostakovich shares this opinion. When this book appeared for the first time, Maxim was not happy with it. He didn't believe it. Well, he didn't believe everything, because there are, of course, good passages in it too. But on the whole, no, is it not typical. I think he was a much more open and warm-hearted man than the one that appears in this book.

DSCH: When I heard your interpretation of the Second Piano Sonata yesterday, I was struck by a strong inclination towards abstraction, especially in the final movement. Do you consider this typical for his music, or is this a phenomenon confined to his chamber music? In other words, do you believe in the theory that his chamber works are governed by more private emotions than his symphonies?

 I do not believe that he was trying to express something different in those two spheres of his creative output. Chamber music is generally on a more intimate scale of course. Take the Preludes and Fugues, which form an intimate diary of the composer. That is not only my idea. Two years ago I met Kurt Sanderling in Copenhagen, who, after having listened to the cycle, reflected on the music in much the same words. The symphonies serve similar functions, but in other ways.

To come back to the Second Piano Sonata. This was a work that he dedicated to his teacher, Nikolaev. No relative of mine, of course, because he was from Leningrad and I myself was born in a small town between Moscow and Kiev. I've lived now for many years in Moscow, although I still visit my little town regularly. I really love my country. It is a balm for my soul.

DSCH: A question with respect to Russia. How do you see the future of your country? And which place will Shostakovich's music be holding in it?

 You know, I am very optimistic, very optimistic! The Russian people, with men like Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky among its offspring, are a special people. They will always be strong. And as far as the future of Shostakovich's music is concerned, when you consider the enormous success that it has enjoyed in Russia for the last few years, all looks very promising. In the beginning, almost no concert organiser was interested in the complete Preludes and Fugues. "Two evenings devoted to the same composer?", they used to say, "No, we would rather have a mixed programme". Now everybody is begging for it. During the past few years, I already played the cycle eight times in Holland. You could almost speak of a Shostakovich renaissance, in Western Europe as well as in Russia.

More  here.


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