The Flute, The Hammer and The Sickle in 1984
By Trevor Wye
It started at a dinner party.
What are Soviet flute players like? What repertoire do they play?
What are their flutes like? What style of playing do they adopt?
Why don't you go and find out, someone suggested.
I wrote to the British Council and here I am.
A briefing at the British Council offices followed and a B.A. flight was arranged. Two weeks in all, a week in Leningrad and one in Moscow.
We flew over Denmark and then down out of the brilliant sunlight for the descent to Moscow.
I had been warned of two-hour queues and careful bag searches, but though everyone around me had to empty their suitcases and were thoroughly searched, I was waved through the barrier to await the arrival of the guide/interpreter, one Igor Tamaseev, who had been assigned to me for the next two weeks.
Eventually, we met and were driven off to Moscow for a brief glimpse of some of the famous sights including Red Square and the Kremlin with its fascinating towers and churches.
After dinner, to the station to catch the overnight sleeper to Leningrad each coach of which has a Jolly Tea Lady.
Next morning I was met by Natasha, a multi-lingual representative of the Ministry of Culture who drove me around the sights of Leningrad. In the afternoon, a visit to the fantastic Hermitage which houses an extraordinary collection of art, sculpture, and porcelain.
Leningrad is very beautiful and many of the facades are coloured in pastel shades which emphasise the colonnades, doors and windows.
The hotel is functional except for the plumbing which operates spasmodically. "It is not permitted to use the lift for persons under the influence of alcohol" says the legend in the lift. I had already acquainted myself with vodka and found it very influential.
The metro (underground) is very clean, easy to use, airy and light. The fare is about 2p to go anywhere.
They are justly very proud of their restoration work on the many churches here. After the Battle of Leningrad in 1941, there was very extensive damage to this fine city.
It is safe to walk the streets at night and the only setback are the foreign exchange touts anxious to change sterling into roubles. The black market rate is around three roubles to the pound; the official rate is 1.1 to the pound.
Soviet institutions are run almost exclusively by what became known as Jolly Ladies. In cloakrooms, restaurants and in all concert halls, one finds these loud voiced formidable Boadiceas, very accustomed to controlling crowds. There is one on every floor of an hotel whose function is to provide hot water, soft drinks, issue keys and keep the floor in order.
My first official trip was to hear Spivakof conducting the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in a Mozart programme.
Igor was slow in arranging the tickets. Eventually he was handed an official pass and on arriving at the Philharmonic Hall, walked to the front of a long queue and demanded two tickets. He got them and then the farce began. We fought - and I mean fought - our way into the foyer to face a dense crowd trying to get in the hall. Eventually, a bell rang and there was a general stampede to get seats. As we only had 'promenade' tickets, we stood at the back and at that point I read the gist of Article Eight section '4' of the Anglo Soviet Cultural Agreement to poor Igor who was dashing about trying to find the Manager. The standing onlookers were pushing and shoving and eventually we stood at the back of the main gangway only to have various Jolly Ladies try to move us away. "It is against regulations" we were told. Poor Igor. He listened to the Symphony sweating and shaking his head and apologising profusely between movements.
Just before the piano concerto, a Jolly Lady produced a chair and placed it in the centre of the gangway and made a corridor through the crowd and indicated I should occupy it. As a guest of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, I had no choice. Very embarrassing. There was a child standing next to her parents. She was obviously tired of standing through this boring concert, so I went over to her and took her hand to bring her back to share my special seat in the centre. The audience around me applauded. More embarrassment.
The orchestra was splendid, a singing string tone and beautiful phrasing. Not having my specs with me, I couldn't clearly see the soloist whom I thought good but lacking in experience. Later I was told it was a 'he' and that he was 13 years old.
The Philharmonic Hall is chandelier lit; the audience were almost all well dressed, extremely enthusiastic and obliged the young pianist to perform the last movement again as an encore.
I met Sian Edwards who graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music two years ago, and is now in her second postgraduate year at the Leningrad Conservatory - more properly known as the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory - studying conducting. She is the only British student here and was useful in providing information on how the Soviet students study.
Apparently, there is great emphasis on learning the instrument properly and much less time spent in orchestras and ensembles. It makes sense. I shall be visiting the Conservatory on Monday.
Meanwhile, poor Igor is desperately endeavouring to obtain a ticket for the Kirov Opera House to see Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet ballet.
I had brought my own water boiling apparatus plus supplies of Earl Grey and Assam tea together with coffee mate (or coffee comrade) but had to hide the apparatus by morning as it would have been confiscated by the Jolly Key Lady. Its against regulations. Milk is difficult to obtain.
Sunday. I was to visit the Hermitage again and Igor phoned to say he would come with me because there would be long queues. Igor has a Pass that Passeth all Queues, for which I was grateful. As it turned out, he had to arrange a ballet visit for that evening, so I went by myself and, as instructed, went to the front of the queue. The queue, being Sunday, was about 2,000 people long. An odd thing happened. Wandering around The Hermitage, I entered a room and a Jolly Lady instantly commanded me to report to the desk in the corner and hand in my Moscow Blue Guide and camera. No one argues with Jolly Ladies. Having done that and been issued with a metal ticket, a roped off portion of the room was opened up, and I was ushered in through massive solid steel doors which must have been a foot thick. The room was ablaze with gold.
In a daze, I started to wander around where another Jolly Lady ordered me to join a group which had just entered in front of me. I was in the Special Exhibition Room not normally open to the public, entrance being obtained in special groups by appointment only and a payment of £15.00. The first Jolly Lady thought I was in the group; the group thought I had been attached to them by the second Jolly Lady. The group were English, as was the guide.
This must be the most amazing, glittering, stupendous display of the goldsmiths art from rare Scythian jewellery to priceless Faberge eggs. It was stunning. No wonder there was a revolution!
I thanked the guide at the end. The group were amazed; they thought I was from the Soviet Security Police. Later, outside the Winter Palace, there was a massive military rehearsal for the big parade on November 7th. A security guard on the perimeter stopped me and said "Eengliski"? "Yes", I replied. "You good Eengliski; you have red tie" and roared at his own joke. Tomorrow, I will wear a blue tie. That night to the Maali Theatre to see Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo & Juliet. Beautiful dancing and a wonderful theatre. The orchestra owned a first trumpet who appeared to have been seconded from Wigan Pier Summer Orchestra. It was a small orchestra but nowhere near the quality of the excellent chamber orchestra I had heard the previous night. The flute playing was gentle toned, with less vibrato than the first oboe. The piccolo player was neat and precise. Prokofiev, of course, isn't funny, especially with so few fiddles and in a small theatre and with the composer's tendency to write for high exposed strings.
The audience was interesting; I was in the Government Official Box, the contents of which rarely applauded. The rest of the audience did; they comprised many children, a good sprinkling of ordinary ranks from the army, people dressed in jeans and in suits. Ticket prices are never more than two pounds and for the back stalls, fifty pence.
In the interval army uniforms and suits alike, myself included, ate slices of bread with a dollop of red caviar and a glass of Soviet champagne. Not bad either, the bill for two was two pounds. Beat that, Covent Garden!
The next morning, Monday, I was taken to the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire to meet Professor Nikitin, and to hear his class. In Room 5A. were eight students nervously awaiting their Professor. There was a pianist for the whole morning and the first student, a girl, played on an open G sharp East German flute. He told her she was not disciplined in her playing of the Hindemith Sonata and too gentle. Her tone was soft and sort of middle of the road. No real stamp of character, but not at all unpleasant.
Room 5A. was decorated with some six yards of framed hand written orchestral excerpts about 5 pages deep all at eye level. By the time a student had been round the room, he would know all the basic tunes.
Prof. Nikitin was demonstrative and frequently sang and conducted her. A warm man. Top E flat was fingered with the first finger left hand off, an oddity I hadn't seen before but in her scale passages, it didn't sound at all odd. She was in her second year. The lesson concluded with a complete performance. Prof. Nikitin said if I had any questions of interpretation, we could settle it over coffee afterwards. If the questions were difficult, he said, we will have cognac as well.
Tzybin was the next composer, another girl playing his Concert Allegro No. 2., a charming early 20th century piece. I was told he was professor of flute in Moscow and St. Petersburg and an important flute player in his day. This player had a somewhat more interesting sound though less developed and she coped well with this technically quite difficult piece. Prof. N. explained it was given her for technical and expressive practise. Another with the perennial C sharp problem. A certain Vice President should send a copy of his scale to both East Germany and the Soviet Union.
Prof. N. has a very romantic approach to this music and is one of the few who really understand the sentiment of the late 19th century. The girl reminded me very much of records of Edith Penville in the 30's. She was in her second year.
Next to play was a boy in his 3rd year. Dutilleaux this time. The only general observation so far is that there is little in the way of a low register, most of the players struggle with the bottom end, but all sound bright, if also a little unfocussed in the third octave. It sounds rather like the leaky flute syndrome. Anyway, here was another open G sharp player; perhaps every one plays them.
On the wall was a large framed group of portraits of past professors. However, there was a blank space; Prof N. told me it was for himself.
The flute students in the class seem to be wearing their best clothes; all look neat, the boys wearing suits and ties.
After a coffee and an over-sweet pastry, we returned to the Studio and heard a Mexican student play Handel's G minor Sonata. She was in her first year. Lovely tone, round and big, but not much idea of the style and little idea of the technique of varying the dynamic range vis-a-vis the pitch.
Prof. N. concentrated on long phrases and in getting her to use cadential trills. He told me earlier that he has an assistant whose job it is to teach technique, scales and all the basics. He just does interpretation in his class and oversees their period of study. In his class, he comments on what they lack, but makes no attempt to offer advice for its correction. An unfortunate woman, the assistant, to spend her time mending people.
The Soviet Union is made up of many nations. An incredible cosmopolitan atmosphere. The faces are all so different in the Conservatoire from oriental looking to distinctly western; and many shades of skin and all speaking Russian with a wide variety of accents. We in the west think of one country, but it is a vast union of countries.
After each student's lesson, they carefully marked their parts with the comments of the Professor.
Towards the end, the Assistant Professoress came in to listen to the class. I noticed that all the music, save Bach, was printed in Russian.
Igor had to sit through the class occasionally interpreting a comment or joke from the Prof.
Next was a fourth year student from Kazakhstan, an oriental looking chap. He played the Martinu Sonata with life but carelessly. Prof. N. worked with him for a time and then in exasperation, slammed the music shut and indicated that the class was prematurely terminated. ‘We go out’, he said.
He then took me to the Pushkin Palace, formerly Tsarskoe Selo, a one-time palace of the Tzars. During World War II the Germans, on retreating, blew up most of it and for twenty years, the Russians have been restoring it back to its former beauty. And what a place, though only partly restored. They have taken enormous effort and cash in the restoration especially so in the gilded carved wood decorations.
Coming out of the palace, in the dusk, a group of women garden labourers were returning from work carrying over their shoulders long, crude gardening tools and with their red noses and coarse features looking like creations of Breugel.
Walking around Leningrad, the visitor from England would be struck by the absence of graffiti and the almost complete absence too, of litter. There just isn't any. There are no police around to enforce it. The people just don't.
In the evening Sian Edwards invited me to the Students Hostel where I met a Cuban teacher of the piano, a Brazilian Composer and two flute students! We has a jolly evening with wine and flute talk. The Hostel was really grotty.
The students have to do four preliminary years at a special school and five years at the Conservatory. Mostly they play Uebel flutes from the G.D.R. but hanker after any western flute. The black market is rife. There are wheelings and dealings going on in every strata of musical life. One can only survive by joining in the black market. Enough said.
Shopping means queuing at the cash desk to pay for what you need, then queuing at the counter to obtain what you need, and, heaven help you if its overweight because then you have to return to the cash desk to pay the excess. It can take two hours. There are queues everywhere. Shopping is a full time activity.
Tuesday morning and off to the Conservatory again, this time to hear two fifteen year old students who were having a lesson as part of their pre-conservatory course, with Professor Nikitin. Again, open G sharp.
The first had quite a different sound than the players on the previous day; larger more guts and greater range of dynamic. A student told me yesterday that even though there is an assistant teacher, many basics are not well taught such as breathing, articulation and general embouchure control.
I tried a Uebel (G.D.R.) flute and found it mechanically heavy. The sound was hard to find and although I only gave it a quick testing for some idea of a scale, it was apparent that the low C was sharp, low C sharp was flat and the upper C sharp was sharp.
It is the ambition of most students to get a western or Japanese flute if possible. It seems this can only be done on the black market.
All the players I heard, without exception, suffered from sharp C sharps. But that's quite common in the west, too, but not at a conservatory, perhaps. Interesting, too, that when Prof N. said take care with your intonation the performer would lose the focus of the sound in attempting to sort it out.
Contemporary music; well, some Soviet composer's music is performed but not the wide range heard in the west. Multiphonics are occasionally met with; circular breathing is not taught.
Like the new vicar doing his village rounds, I left a few tracts in the form of my Practice Books in the German Edition. Take twice daily after meals. I asked the Prof, afterwards if he found it difficult to teach someone who is not musical. He said "I have to teach everyone whom the Conservatory accepts. There is nothing I can do".
Another young player playing music by Tzybin, the piece I heard yesterday. He and the one who was to play later, both had Otto Monig flutes from G.D.R. The first young player - maybe he was about fifteen years old -was very loud and the first one I had seen who had a dose of knees-bend choreography.
Nearly all the G.D.R. flutes I've seen so far have reverse thumb keys, that is, the B natural and B flat keys are the other way round than we are used to. It does make more sense to have B natural above B flat and it was how Boehm would have it.
The Professor took his music away and told him to play from memory, which he did and started making mistakes and stopped and said "I could play it at home in my kitchen". Prof N. said "The kitchen here it better. Get on with it" He comes from Chelyabinsk, a city in the Ural Mountains.
Lastly, a young boy who played a concerto by Wilhelm Popp of whose music one writer in the 19th century said was much ado about nothing. Right, but good practise material for this boy. A lovely sound and showing much promise. He could have been having a lesson anywhere in England with his white shirt, blue tie, and navy blue school trousers. I noticed he kept his little finger on the G sharp key throughout most of the arpeggios. Naughty, naughty.
Prof. Nikitin uses 19th century concertos as study material because they contain all the basic elements of rhythm and romantic style.
The young lad was used to demonstrate how soviet flute students practice tone exercises which consisted of long notes, with a warm expressive sound; just a chromatic scale.
Then followed a scale session; low C to top B then down to low G only. Various articulations and all with strict adherence to rhythmic accuracy. The lad went on to play the first of the Taffanel/Gaubert Studies from his Methode, strictly for technique and evenness of tone.
Then it was time for tea.
We went to the Cathedral of the Trinity where there is a monastery and a Priest's Training College. It was curious to go into a Church which wasn't a museum. Twilight was upon us when we entered and the only illumination in this vast and beautiful Cathedral were two electric lights and hundreds of tiny oil lamps and votive candles.
In front of a picture of Alexander Nevsky stood a beautiful girl with blond hair, lighting a candle. The soft light of the candle lit her face so that it glowed. She was unaware I was watching her. Reverence and piety was reflected in her face as she tried to keep the candle upright. It was a magical moment, the more so, because we were in the U.S.S.R. Outside, beggars were crossing themselves and asking for alms. Nearby I indulged in my favourite pastime, and visited the graves of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin.
Later, to the Kirov Theatre to see the ballet "Giselle".
The top price for this theatre - and we had front row stall seats - is £2.80. In the gods you need only pay 50 pence. The theatre is beautiful and richly ornamented. Gold leafed carving and chandeliers in profusion and near the ceiling, where the Romanov Coat of Arms once hung, was the replacement; a gold leafed hammer and sickle surrounded by putti blowing trumpets.
The ballet was entirely excellent; the corps de ballet especially so. The conductor carved without a score and the orchestra was very fine. The flute players were quite different than those I had heard previously, a fine orchestral section using the minimum of vibrato and very well in tune. The piccolo player also deserves special mention for his rapier-like sparkling playing. The brass section was aware of every conductorial gesture and tuning was excellent. A fine band indeed.
The Kirov theatre also known as the Mariinsky Theatre had seen the World Premiere of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker Ballets, Borodin's Prince Igor and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Amongst the famous dancers who made their debuts here were Nijinsky, Ulanova and Pavlova.
Wednesday and my final day in Leningrad to be spent at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory where the great composer had taught for 37 years. On ascending the main staircase one is confronted with a marble bust of Lenin straddled by red flags. Outside the flute studio is a notice board with a large red poster depicting Lenin.
I began the day by asking about the course for flute students. Professor Nikitin sits on a Commission which examines each candidate but the student can only reach this far if he passes many educational exams. If he is talented but obtains poor results in his exams, he will not be admitted. The course lasts for five years; students study many subjects of the usual kind but including Political Economy, the History of the U.S.S.R. and of the Communist Party. This is a normal part of all Higher Education. Students are given two lessons per week on their principal study and are expected to be properly prepared for them. They are required to prepare pieces from memory. Studies consist of the usual repertoire including Taffanel & Gaubert. An orchestral player in a principal position can expect to receive about £430/£480 per month though this must be seen against the low cost of living; an apartment - if you can get one - would cost about £10. per month.
Auditions for competitions are held behind a curtain to ensure fairness. Most of the principal positions in orchestras are, however, occupied by men.
Do all the students find work? There is no unemployment in the U.S.S.R., I was told. Some go into orchestras and some teach in schools.
Students are selected for the Conservatory Orchestra by invitation and usually are taken from the 4th or 5th year students, though if a second year student shows promise, they are given an opportunity to play. They are expected to practise for five hours each day and can be expelled if they don't work. They have annual exams consisting of scales, studies and three pieces, one classical, one romantic and one modern.
Off to the recording studio where I heard a Sonatine by Vladimir Citovich pronounced Sitoivich. During the recording playback the composer came in to be introduced. It is a fine piece and should be heard in the west. I also heard a Sonata by Nagovitsin who also visited the studio and gave me signed copy of his work. Finally a Sonata by Banchikov written in memory of his teacher Shostakovich, a very profound and moving work. That too, should be given an airing in the west though I only began to like it on a second hearing. In all the performances, the pianist was the composer. The composers are all of the Leningrad School, I was told, and all were, or are, Professors at the Conservatory. All pieces are published.
Soviet published music looks rather unattractive to Western eyes used to glossy covers and pretty pictures.
On leaving the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, I took out my camera to take a picture of Lenin's bust on the stairway "That's not advisable", Igor told me, "..as it may be misunderstood in the West. People may think a Conservatory, is all politics. He is there because he is the Father of the Soviet Union". I suggested that perhaps Igor would prefer a blank space in "Pan" with a caption indicating that the picture couldn't appear by order of the authorities? He agreed I should take the photograph.
On leaving, I was asked to write a few paragraphs about my visit to the Conservatory to appear in the Leningrad press which I happily agreed to do. What I'd written was read to Professor Nikitin in Russian; it praised the way in which classes were conducted, but criticised the standard of the instruments. Asked about the flutes, I told them that I would use such a flute to poke the fire. They thanked me for my honesty. I wrote that without better flutes the standards are handicapped.
That evening, dinner with the Prof, with Igor translating, Afterwards, Sian Edwards, who had been a great help during my stay, arranged for all the flute students to meet me at the Hotel where we exchanged views, asked questions and drank beer and vodka. They were a very lively lot and we parted the best of friends. This was the second time I had arranged a party; the first time, they didn’t come because ‘professors never socialize with students’.
Much has been written about life for the Soviet citizen. I can only write what I observed during my short stay. There were often queues for food, not that it is in short supply, but items do come into the shops but Ivan Ivanovitch has to be quick to obtain them. That means queuing. There are queues everywhere.
Music and flutes aside, there isn't much enthusiasm for contact with the west; that may bring all the west's current problems such as mugging, violence and graffiti and the dreadful battering we receive from advertising.
The students, of course, were very eager for information in every area of flute playing, just like students everywhere. Sian Edwards was a great help in translating all the flute language that was flying around. As I left, the students presented me with a record of my favourite Soviet flute player Valentin Zwerev which they all signed.
I promised to ask the BFS Council to arranged for copies of PAN to be made available to the students.
And so to the station for the Red Arrow Express overnight to Moscow to begin the second week with more Jolly Ladies.
Back in Moscow, I was installed in the Hotel Budapesht about 10 minutes walk from the Kremlin and Red Square. The first evening was spent walking around the Square which is traffic free. The cobblestones had already been marked out with painted signs for the guidance of tanks and troops for the big parade on November 7th.
The next morning, Friday, I was met by the Director of the Music Museum (Glinka) and told that unfortunately the Museum was in the process of setting out the displays and the Curator of the wind instruments section was on holiday at the moment and so nothing could be seen. He did promise to send me a catalogue of the collection.
I was then shown the keyboard section and the instruments were demonstrated by the Assistant Curator who was most helpful. She set in motion some of the automata which were in working order and then showed me many relics and manuscripts of Glinka, the Father of Russian music.
In the evening, to the Bolshoi Opera to see Ivan Susanin by Glinka, most elaborately staged. The orchestra was excellent and again I noticed the solo flute player whose gentle sound captivated. The horns were good too and used the bare minimum of vibrato. Walking back, many streets leading to Red Square were blocked off to allow a tank rehearsal, the rumbling of which could be heard throughout the city, all part of the great Parade on November 7th. I went to bed and listened to some of the Couperin's harpsichord music as an antidote for the noise. Late that night out to watch the changing of the guard on Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square.
Yesterday I was taken to a the first pizza parlour where I was told the chefs had been taught how to make pizzas by visiting Italian chefs. Pizzas are new to Moscow. The pizza case was covered with raw tomatoes, cooked, cold mushrooms, hard boiled eggs and a kind of cold cream cheese. Odd. Eating out is beset by problems of one sort or another. One restaurant we tried was ‘closed for lunch’. Igor explained that the cooks and waiters were entitled to have lunch like everyone else.
Sunday was spent in bed recovering from having eaten something unpleasant the night before. Maybe the pizza.
Monday. On the television this morning was a programme of patriotic Soviet music played by a military band. All the flutes had open G sharps and the entire programme was played from memory. The band contained the usual mix of instruments plus two string basses and a harp.
We were late the next day. Igor walked into the road, showed his card to a passing taxi who immediately stopped. All the occupants got out. We got in and went to the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, a most elegant building, to hear the classes of Alexandre Korneyev and Professor Yagudin. I heard four students, the first of which played a Sonata by Taktakishvili, another tuneful piece which I hadn't heard before, and full of minor key, sad Russian melodies. Then a fifth year student played the D minor C. P. E. Bach Concerto rather well. The C. P. E. Bach edition was printed in Hungary and not without errors which were passed unnoticed. All appoggiaturas were tongued, as were their resolutions. There followed a Liadov Prelude, very attractive, and the same student, an Algerian, then played the Poulenc Sonata. He had rhythm problems. Again, as in Leningrad there was ample criticism of all three, but no solutions offered.
I was then asked to play the Godard Suite which I did to much peering and loud comments in Russian about my embouchure and flute. I had brought with me my "holiday flute", a student instrument from Taiwan. They were very surprised it cost 200 rubles (about £220). Most students had Uebel flutes from East Germany though one had an East German Hammig.
The variety of vibrato is interesting; no one student sounded anything like another, but with players from all over the vast Soviet Union who could wonder. The Union comprises, let us remind ourselves, of Uzbekistan, Tadgikistan, Kirgizia, Turkomenia, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaidgan, Bylorusia, Ukraine, Latvia, Litva, Estonia, Moldavia and the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, all of which were once separate countries and still have their own dialects, customs, dress and, last but not least, vibrato. All are now part of the Soviet Union.
Alexandre Korneyev told me all students have to learn the solo repertoire from memory in all the Professors classes. Once again the flute tone was soft and gentle, perhaps more aptly described by so-called French school addicts as de timbre, but without as much roundness as can be heard by such players.
The three professors studied with the now famous Tsybin about whom I had heard so much in Leningrad. The room was bare save for a portrait of Tsybin. I then went to hear Yagudin's class. Just one player played the Bach B minor sonata. It was played exactly as on the copy; no trills and with the absent appoggiaturas we in the West are accustomed to hear, remaining absent. Prof. Yagudin then asked me to play and I had the same experience as before; peering and commenting except this time Yagudin kept feeling my ribs and commenting approvingly to the students. It was hard to keep a straight face, as all this was going on as I was playing. Prof. Yagudin gave me a brief run down of the basic principles of his teaching which are breathing, proper hand positions, posture, fingering correctly, especially E flat - and good tone. He also teaches his students to tongue between the lips, shades of Moyse, I suppose.
He told me the flute had no fixed scale like the piano (!) and that it was up to the player to make the pitch right.
He said he was very surprised when Rampal visited Moscow to note that he actually played from the music!
The students use the Method of Platanov - a former student of Tsybin - and Studies by Tzybin himself.
Prof. Yagudin is 78 years old, and still full of energy. He gave his final recital 3 years ago in the Conservatoire. He has a wealth of stories to tell of conductors and soloists, 50 years with the Moscow State Orchestra and the Bolshoi Ballet.
Somebody ought to find out about Tsybin; his name came up with great reverence everywhere. I expect I shall.
What works would you put into a list of the top 6 or 8 Soviet compositions for the flute which we may not know in the West? I asked. Tsybin, of course, they unanimously agreed. (Him again). Particularly the Second of his Three Concert Allegros for flute and piano.
Prof. Yagudin promised to send it to me together with Tsybin's Tarantella.
The top of the list were:—
GLIERE Melody and Valse for flute and piano.
GORDELY Concerto. Flute and orchestra.
WEINBERG Concerto. Flute and orchestra (The last two being recent works.)
DENISOV Concerto for flute and orchestra.
DIMITRIEV Concerto for piccolo, flute, alto flute and orchestra.
ARATUNYAN Concerto for flute and orchestra. (An Armenian composer)
KRIVITSKY Concerto for flute and orchestra.
BANCHIKOV Sonata for flute and piano. (I already heard it in Leningrad and was given a copy).
SMOLSKY Sonata for flute and piano. (A composer from Minsk).
KREIN Sonata for flute and piano.
Denisov was the only one previously known to me, besides Gliere, of course.
Perhaps in the fullness of time, on my return, I will report further about these little known Soviet composers in Pan.
After the Conservatory, a visit to the All Union House of Composers where many famous (U.S.S.R.) Composers had gathered to hear a concert of their own works. What a splendid idea. The building has rest rooms, a restaurant (composers only) a bar and a medium size Concert hall with Steinway grand, and a big platform all serving the need for composers to have their music performed. Alexandre Korneyev was one of the performers in a pleasant short sonata. All perform without fee. That the composers can get top rate players to play their works is very encouraging, the more so when the next item was a Suite for no less than twelve cellos. The composer must have worked hard to get twelve excellent players together from the Moscow Symphony and Opera orchestras for this first performance.
The waiter who served lunch offered me the parts and the score of two jazz pieces he's written. Yes, the waiter. This was truly the House of Composers. Please try to get them performed for me, he said.
It wouldn't have surprised me to see a cloakroom Jolly Lady scribbling out the score of an opera between coats and hats. Has the B.F.S. got its own premises? I was asked. What a thought. In the Soviet Union such a thing might be possible.
Enough of the awful Hotel Budapesht where I was staying: that evening to the Intourist plastic hotel to eat. Caviar again? No, I tried the other part of the fish, smoked sturgeon; delicious.
The next morning was spent organising a mistake on my visa. Endless beaurocracy and telephone calls, also a visit to OVIR, the tourist police office . . . Not recommended.
A concert of new music followed at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the Great Hall, where the International Piano Competitions are held. We heard the State Symphony Orchestra of the Ministry of Culture, one of the most important orchestras in Moscow.
A first performance of a Denisov work was surprisingly gentle on the ear, the rest was pseudo classical or back scratching in its horridness, relieved only by, gentle flutes, excellent horns (the vibrato is really enjoyable), and superb clarinet playing.
Across the Moskva river from Red Square, the churches and Cathedral looked like a Disney film set in the setting sun. A truly wonderful sight.
A word about restaurants. Westerners are warned that service is not what we, in the West, are normally accustomed to. Too right. Most, and I mean at least three quarters, of waiters and waitresses vary from grim surliness to downright rudeness. The big Intourist hotels are better, presumably as the staff have been trained. If the visitor eats as the Muscovites eat, beware. To add insult to injury, a tip is unacknowledged and is indeed still expected.
On Wednesday, arriving for breakfast ten minutes before breakfast officially closes, I was shouted at. A Jolly Lady began to serve my breakfast to the accompaniment of watch tapping and aggressive, loud Russian. I am British, so I swept out. In any case, I'd had enough of almost raw, warm boiled eggs and stale rolls. My dignity was intact but my belly empty.
A visit to the Tretiakov Gallery, containing the finest collection of Russian Icons in the World. It was worth far more than the 3 hours I spent there.
Its Wednesday October 31st, very cold and snowing.
Igor, bless his hammer and sickle, had tried very hard to find out how I could meet Valentin Zwerev the great Russian soloist and today, I received an invitation to dinner with him.
At lunchtime, we looked for a cafe to have a light lunch. Having found one at last, we were told it was shut. For lunch. The mind boggles.
Toilet facilities in public buildings are interesting. On entering, the solid stench of uric acid produces a sudden disinclination, and a total drying up of the normal processes. This effect last for hours.
The final evening was spent at Zwerev's house in Moscow where we had a most merry time.
First a duet or two, and then some of his records which I thought were really excellent. One sonata which greatly impressed me was by Kornakov. I heard Zwerev's record of it and the opening theme never left my head fully for five days. Its a great work. I shall be reviewing the most popular flute repertoire in Pan in the next issue. He presented me with a pile of records and music; music with tunes too! It was a jolly evening at which I was able to gather a lot of information about repertoire and records from the Soviet Union's premier flute player.
The next day, my last, was spent at the Conservatory. We were late. Igor stopped a taxi which had just moved away, full of customers, from the kerb. He said something to the driver and they all got out. We got in. As I said before, Igor has a Pass that passeth all understanding, though I was beginning to understand that he was not all he seemed ... the taxi incident was the second time he'd pulled that trick.
We arrive at the Conservatory to meet the Assistant Director who took us along to Professor Doljikov's class. At this Conservatory, there was a total of twenty one flute students, fourteen of which are taught by Doljikov, the "Senior" Professor, three by Korneyev, and four are taught by Prof. Yagudin. I heard some more Tsybin played by a Spanish student before being asked to play a Devienne Concerto, and a tune or two, which I did. They were most interested in my way of blowing the flute. I demonstrated some Practise Book Exercises from the English version of Volume one - TONE. I tried their flutes too, Otto Hammig of Leipzig; very heavy mechanism and was not a responsive flute. Low C. would need a can of spinach a day to operate.
The players had a variety of tone colours but the basic tone was better than anything I had heard previously. He was tough with them; no messing about - if it wasn't good, they got the raw edge of his tongue. There was no one to go off to cry to. They just stood there and took it.
Doljikov is a good teacher but even then, I felt that the standard of flute playing was light years behind the keyboard and strings and behind the Soviet clarinet standard of playing.
In all the classes - there are no private lessons and they have a staff accompanist on a good piano.
After a hurried lunch with two students from England - and Igor - I returned to hear a Concerto by Romberg.
Then the Ministry of Culture car came to collect me and my luggage - and Igor of course - for the trip to the airport. There in front of me, was Kenny Ball's Jazz Band, emptying their luggage and bags completely and undergoing thorough searching by Jolly Ladies. Igor muttered to the Jolly Customs Lady and discreetly waved a card. I was ushered straight through. 'How the hell did you manage that', Kenny Ball wanted to know. 'Igor has a pass that passeth all queues . . .' etc., I replied. The air was blue with naughty words.
When are you going to join the K.G.B.? I asked Igor at the airport. He looked startled and embarrassed. I had wondered about Igor. Then, I knew.
Later, in the British Airways plane, the pilot announced 'for those of you who are interested, we have just left Soviet Air Space'. A great cheer went up and I ordered a half bottle of champagne.
These are my general impressions and observations about the flute playing in the Soviet Union.
Baroque music: the Soviets haven't the access to information on the same scale as we have in the West. For example, the excellent British Early Music Magazine, which sets trends and leads thinking, and is not afraid to castigate itself from time to time, is unheard of here. Not that importing it, and translating it would have any effect; there doesn't seem to be an interest in 18th century style. Their style is based on what their teachers have taught them plus a few dribbles of information from the West from visiting tweeters - myself amongst them - whom they may or may not feel inclined to listen to.
They have a strong sense of direction on the flute without all the distractions of the affluent West such as Associated Board Exams, Regional Competitions, master classes, books and magazines.
They have none of it.
But which is better? To be able to choose without knowing? Or only to have but one choice without ever knowing that you didn't know?
They use a wide variety of music from the 19th century, some for performance but mostly for study purposes. They play it very warmly - as they play music from all periods. The heart is dominant; to hell with the upper or lower note appoggiaturas!
Though they may appear to lack a lot seen through our eyes, they don't lack direction from above.
On most mornings the basement of the Conservatory opens as 7 a.m. There are students queuing at 6 a.m. in order to secure the best pianos in the practise studios. At exam or competition time, they are queuing at 5.30 a.m.
Many are the lessons I have seen in the West where the student is given ample freedom to choose. (Usually because the teacher himself doesn't know).
Democracy - precious democracy - and art, don't mix in my view. Students need to know precisely what they should do; how to play it; what articulation to use. Wishy-washy colleges and universities in the West, where freedom to do your own thing and 'express yourself' rather than the composer's intentions (and who is more important?) produces lousy results. A student needs to know what he is about. He needs to be told. Later, he can choose.
Teachers here are strong, more so in piano and strings. Right or wrong they are sure of what they teach.
'I don't know whether I'm right, but you are wrong', seems to be the maxim. Privately, the students may disagree with an interpretation, or an embouchure change, or whatever, but at the lesson, the message is clear; do it now; disagree later in private.
It is interesting to note that the Shakuhachi, the Japanese flute, is broadly taught in this way. If you wish to find truly great musicians, look to the piano and strings; not many are found in the ranks of flute players. Some, though are found amongst Shakuhachi players.
Printed music is precious to a Soviet student and is hard to come by. Photocopy machines are not easily available and fraught with difficulty, not to mention quality.
In many ways, we in the west, have too much and don't know how to use it.
The students were fascinated by PAN the British Flute Society journal. That so much is available four times a year is beyond their experience.
The choice of instruments here is a major problem. No,... correction!; Its a minor problem; there aren’t any!
Russian Style: in a word, old fashioned to western ears, particularly to those who have listened extensively to 78 r.p.m. gramophone records. Lack of communication with the West has contributed a great deal to this freezing of the style. Not that it is in any way bad to be performing in a style of the 30's but it presents problems if the Soviets were to try to market their solo records to the West.
To give some idea, only one student in each Conservatory has heard of James Galway, and they were students who had been to Paris at one time or another. Several had heard of Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the distinguished American player because she has visited both Leningrad and Moscow. Several, too, had heard of Rampal.
I visited record shops but there were no Western - at least solo flute - records available. There were some of contemporary Soviet players such as Korneyev and Valentin Zwerev; I had heard records of Zwerev in Amsterdam. Zwerev has obviously been influenced by French style and his records are highly captivating to western ears.
Firstly my grateful thanks to the British Council for making it possible and secondly to the Ministry of Culture, U.S.S.R. for making the arrangements. Lastly, and with affection, to Igor Tamaseyev who followed me everywhere, tried his hardest to smooth the way, and had to suffer endless flute classes and flute music. He confessed that he was beginning to like the flute. Igor and I started off being mutually suspicious of each other but we parted as mutually suspicious friends. I felt sure that we would meet again one day; probably in the UK. The more contact we have with the Soviet Union, the less chance of conflict.
Music is a universal language; it is also the most peaceful one.
About the flutes: They were usually made in East Germany; open G sharp was normal and with the thumb keys reversed. The mechanism was very bad. On one flute, I tried to overcome the pressure of the saxophone springs (!) in order to play low C and managed it after a struggle. The owner shook hands with me as I left and nearly crippled my right hand.
On my return, I arranged for a collection to pay for a Japanese flute to be available in the UK for her. I bought air tickets for her to collect it and for her to stay at my house for a week. When she applied for a visa to leave the Soviet Union, the conditions were: she had to be paid a weekly salary; she had to be paid a daily living allowance; the air fare had to be purchased via the Soviet Embassy in London so that she could travel by Aeroflot and the ticket would cost exactly three times the British Airways ticket; finally, she would be given only 24 hours notice of permission to travel. I had to abandon the scheme.
Professor Yagudin has been dead for some years. Sian Edwards followed a successful career as a conductor. I have never heard from Igor, though I heard he joined the KGB. Professor Gleb Nikitin invited me to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) a few years ago to take a few days of classes, but died while the negotiations were under way.
In Leningrad, the official who interviewed me thanked me for my honesty, said he would try to get better instruments for the students. He never did.
The music the students had was badly edited: a Bach sonata had no graces or embellishments and the Russian students played them like that. The B minor sounded quite odd. On my return, I arranged for a collection of good editions of common flute repertoire to be sent to the students, three heavy parcels of music to be given away at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad. All three never arrived.
I sent some CDs later too. They too never arrived.
Valentin Zwerev and I met again a few years ago on the Munich International Competition Jury. We had a good time talking of old times and of the situation in Moscow. Sadly, just before he arrived in Munich his flute was stolen: he parked his car to play a concert; a man knocked on the passenger side window to shout that he had a flat tire; he got out to look and another man opened the rear door driver’s side, grabbed his flute and ran. In 1984, he was the only Russian to own a gold flute. The Munich Jury made a collection to enable him to buy a decent flute while he was in Munich.
The student I tried to help, Svetlana Kiktevich, is now in an orchestra, writes warmly to me every year, sends photos of her family and children, and still has the same flute....
(TW Revised 2008)