Is Russian music appropriate? Interview with the pianist Osetinskaya

Photo by Gyunai Musaeva
Polina Osetinskaya is a famous Russian pianist. DW met with the musician in Berlin, where she will present her new program "24".

Polina Osetinskaya presents her new program "24" in Europe, consisting of masterpieces by Fryderyk Chopin, Dmitry Shostakovich and Leonid Desyatnikov.

Chopin, Shostakovich, Desyatnikov

DW: Can you tell us about the new program you’re performing with? How did it work out?

Polina Osetinskaya: In 2017, the composer Leonid Desyatnikov, with whom I have been lucky to be friends since I was seven years old, wrote the composition "Bukovina Songs", 24 preludes for piano. This genre is very honourable and in demand, but not many composers have decided on it. There are 48 preludes and fugues by Bach, 24 preludes and fugues by Shostakovich, Chopin, and of course, Desyatnikov is a follower of this tradition. A music lover, well-educated and cultural music lover, naturally creates this parallel in their mind: Chopin, Shostakovich, Desyatnikov. This is how the program has developed, and I see how organically Shostakovich flows into Chopin, and how in the second movement Desyatnikov unites both, giving them new facets.

"Bukovina Songs" was written in 2017 based on authentic Ukrainian songs from the Western Bukovina folklore collection. Certainly, you can hear a lot of the composer's Kharkiv childhood there, some kind of unique melos, and aromas. In Shostakovich's preludes, we feel something similar - the unique existence of the sound palette of the surrounding time. In the music of Leonid Desyatnikov, this is revealed in two directions at once: in the plane of Ukrainian childhood, Ukrainian folklore and in the plane of life context.

"I can understand if a Ukrainian doesn't want to listen to Tchaikovsky"

- What do you think is appropriate or inappropriate to perform from Russian music today?

- It all depends on the context. It is strange to reason - "appropriate" or "inappropriate". Music is not to blame for anything at all. Especially music written 100 years ago and in quite similar historical moments. Shostakovich, for example, waited for his arrest and sat at night, for several months, with a packed suitcase by the elevator, so that when they came for him, his family would not be woken up. This is the reality that many people live in now. Or Rachmaninoff, who was forced to leave Russia because of the revolution. But at the same time, the function of music as a great comforter remains. What else can people need in a state of such turmoil, confusion and enormous stress that they have been living in lately?

I can understand if a Ukrainian doesn't want to listen to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But if it brings comfort to another person at the moment, I can't take it away. I, for one, find comfort in Bach or Handel. And Desyatnikov, of course, because playing this music, I plunge into a state that I wouldn’t like to leave. Space and time disappear. "Bukovina Songs" is like a big novel by Proust, into which you fall and live. Wounds heal, and if these wounds cannot be healed, at least they stop hurting. Music is, by and large, an analgesic. And it is crucial to have it.

"There is little hope"

- How difficult is it for you to exist in an environment where a musician's performances may be cancelled because of their beliefs?

- As long as I have the opportunity to go on stage and play, as long as I'm alive and free, who cares where to do it. I play in hospices, I can play in a nightclub or some kind of cultural centre, at strange underground venues or at the Berlin Philharmonic. It doesn't matter whether it's at Carnegie Hall or hospice, I try to play the same way. I approach this as a life's work that needs to be done well. There are people everywhere, and they all need music as a comfort.

Everything is cyclical in history. I remember the pianists: Marina Yudina, who had no opportunity to go anywhere abroad, and Vera Lothar-Shevchenko, a brilliant beauty who conquered Paris and spent many years in camps. Richter, who had been banned from travelling for many years. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were expelled in disgrace and returned triumphant when Russia ceased to be their home. I'm looking at these historical parallels, and I don't have a very optimistic view. I do not know if I will ever see the other round of history. There are few hopes. But there is a desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with those people who believe and expect something. I wish they weren't alone.

- If you compare different times over the years that you have been on stage - how do you see, is there need for classical music in society today?

- In Europe, classical music exists on the basis of the establishment. These are middle-aged and above-middle-aged people, well-off, because these are expensive halls, tickets, a certain way of spending time, trips to the Salzburg Festival, the Bayreuth Festival, to Aix-en-Provence. Only the high middle class, the bourgeoisie, can afford it. If society does not form this request within itself, it begins to disappear. Then bright personalities can bring new audiences to academic halls: today they are Yuja Wang, Gustavo Dudamel, Teodor Currentzis.

There were a lot of young people at the concert in Prague, which made me very happy. It is important that they have prerequisites in the family or at school, that they get teachers who would tell them that music is the most accessible type of anaesthesia, reconciling with the surrounding reality.

Editor's note: today Polina Osetinskaya remains living in Russia, where she lost the opportunity to perform at many official venues due to her civic position.

Marina Konstantinova for «Deutsche Welle».

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