IT IS difficult to imagine anyone forgetting the experience of hearing Tatiana Nikolayeva play. She was one of those rare artists who had the ability to win over an audience before even reaching the keyboard. Rotund, and frequently wearing a rather startlingly bright dress, she would make her way to the front of the piano, give the audience a heartwarmingly big smile, and then settle her ample frame on to the stool. Everything radiated humility, generosity of spirit and, above all, happiness.
I first came across her name on a Melodya LP of Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto, recorded in the early 1950s. Despite a raucous sound quality one immediately became aware of a pianist whose technical accomplishment was imperially comprehensive and yet who also possessed a rarely developed ear for polyphonic writing.
Seeking out as many of her recordings as I could, I soon learnt that she was, above all, a Bach player and had won first prize at the International Bach Competition in Leipzig, inaugurated to commemorate the bicentenary of the composer's death in 1750. Dmitri Shostakovich had been a judge at the event and was so impressed and inspired by the 25-year-old pianist's playing that he had written his 24 Preludes and Fugues for her. She would visit his apartment to play them over to him almost one-by-one as they were composed. The Opus 87 set became one of the most important works in Nikolayeva's repertoire, taking up a whole recital programme. Indeed, it was while she was performing the big B flat minor fugue at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco on 13 November that she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and soon lapsed into a coma.
Born in the small town of Bezhitza, near Bryansk, roughly half-way between Moscow and Kiev, Nikolayeva came from a musical family. Her mother, a professional pianist, had studied at the Moscow Conservatory under the celebrated pedagogue Alexander Goldenweizer (1875-1961), and her father was a keen amateur violinist and cellist. Tatiana Petrovna began piano lessons when five and started composing at 12. In the following year she was admitted by competitive examination to the Central Secondary School of Music in Moscow, a branch of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where she had instruction from her mother's teacher, Goldenweizer - and she continued with him once at the Conservatory proper. The professor had been a friend of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Medtner, and inculcated into his students the need to develop the highest proficiency in contrapuntal playing. Bach was very much the order of the day. Amongst Goldenweizer's other students who reached the top of their profession were Grigori Ginzburg, Samuil Feinberg, Dmitri Bashkirov and Lazar Berman.
Graduating from the class in 1947, Nikolayeva then studied composition with Yevgeni Golubev. The fruit of this course was a cantata Pesn o schast'ye ('Song about Happiness') and a piano concerto in B, the latter a piece that she later recorded with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under the eminent conductor Kiril Kondrashin. Ultimately, though, her best-known works are a set of 24 Concert Studies, firmly polyphonic in style, and a faithful and unfettered transcription of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, a recording of which has recently been released by RCA Victor in Japan.
Though she had made her official debut in 1945, it was not until after the Leipzig Bach Competition that Nikolayeva's career really took off. Appearances, however, were very much restricted to Eastern Bloc countries, and she never achieved the 'favoured artist' status that was the prerequisite to enable any Soviet musician to play abroad during the Cold War years. Nikolayeva started teaching at the Moscow Conservatory in 1959, and from 1965 was a professor. It was her standing as such that led her to be invited to sit as a jury member for various different international piano competitions; she was at the Leeds Competition in 1984 and 1987.
Nikolayeva's career in Britain resulted from contacts made during the course of these visits. By this stage there was a dearth of older Russian pianists playing in the West: Emil Gilels had died, and Svjatoslav Richter's concert-giving was becoming, at best sporadic. I don't think, however, that any concert promoter in Britain had guessed at the extent of the success Nikolayeva was to enjoy. Her appearances at the Proms were greeted with terrific enthusiasm and in 1991 Hyperion's CDs of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues were given a Gramophone Award.
It is only to be hoped that several of her earlier Melodya discs will be reissued. She had a colossal repertoire and specialised in playing cyclical works. Aside from the Shostakovich, though, Tatiana Nikolayeva will be remembered as a Bach player who flung stylistic considerations to the winds and played the music with an irrepressible musical intelligence and knowledge of the resources of her chosen instrument.
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