Leonid Nikolayev's class of piano geniuses

Ninety four years ago today, on Friday 11 March 1927, the former class of Leonid Nikolayev got together again to play in the Large Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonia.

They had all graduated several years before, and a few had already made a name for themselves –

Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, had already written his first symphony, and had it performed in Leningrad the year before.

Vladimir Sofronitsky was just a year away from going to Paris, and Maria Yudina was already teaching in the conservatory and doing her own thing (as you'll see below).

I'm not sure of the reason for this reunion, but here is the concert poster, with a special announcement underneath –

The concert programme of Leonid Nikolayev's piano class on 11 March 1927

The seven pianists who played were Alexander Kamensky, Isai Renzin, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Josef Shvarts, Konstantin Schmidt, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Maria Yudina. All seven are in the photo lower down.

The concert began with a work by Leonid Nikolayev – his Variations on a four note theme for two pianos, op. 14, played by Isai Renzin and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The thought of Shostakovich playing anything not of his own making is tantalising. As it is, in a time without the possibility to record live, we can only take it as part of his formation into the ever-present genius he became.

Alexander Kamensky played next. He was known to have an enormous appetite for repertoire – a very catholic taste, let's say. He was particularly known as a leading interpreter of contemporary music, so it's no surprise he chose to play what we would consider now an unusual transcription of Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka by Theodor Szanto (Tivadar Szántó) –

Just 14 years later, as the Leningrad Siege began, Kamensky decided to remain in the city, playing, broadcasting and working at a ferocious pace. In those few years he played over 500 concerts, and in his own report, written in early 1942, he stated that he played up to 3 sponsored concerts a day for the Red Army. You could imagine the state the pianos were in.....not to mention the health of the people.

This is how Kamensky (1900-1952) described the conditions of the pianos during the blockade – 'Some are completely broken, hopelessly hoarse, and some defiantly loud, bitterly upset. Sometimes you come across keyboards that have had their ivory plates stripped off in various places. And then the rough surface of the bare keyboard is painful on your fingertips.'

It's fascinating to read about him – how he tirelessly played in hospitals, in military offices, at railway stations and recruiting points. In the first year of the siege alone he gave 70 radio performances. He's a legend of the time, and I recommend seeing the video of him on my channel, even if the footage of him is relatively brief –

Next, Isai Renzin (1903-1969) returned to the stage to play solo –

Bach-Godowsky - Fantasia and Fugue from Violin Sonata 1 or 3 (it doesn't state which).

Liszt - Dante Sonata

Renzin, who was in the same class as Yudina and Sofronitsky, taught at the conservatory from 1925 to 1950, and briefly was its director from 1935-37.

You can see Renzin here, sitting third from the left, next to Samari Savshinsky.

Nikolayev's class of piano graduates in 1924

Sitting (l-r): Samari Savshinsky, Maria Yushkova, Isai Renzin, Leonid Nikolayev, Konstantin Schmidt, German Bik, Vladimir Sofronitsky.

Standing: Nestor Zagorny, Dmitri Shostakovich, Maria Yudina, Alexander Kamensky, Josef Shvarts.

This 1924 class photo shows graduates of various ages.

Then Vladimir Sofronitsky appeared. He played Prokofiev – 6 Visions fugitives and Piano Sonata no. 3. There is a recording of him playing this sonata in 1955 in the Scriabin Museum, released by Vista Vera.

A couple of years later Sofronitsky was driving through France with Sergei Prokofiev –

Vladimir Sofronitsky and Sergei Prokofiev driving in France

Alongside Shostakovich, Josef Shvarts was chosen to play in the determining Five Pianist recital ahead of the 1927 Chopin Competition. They played alongside–and partly against–their Moscow compatriots – Yuri Bryushkov, Grigory Ginzburg and Lev Oborin. In the end Shvarts was not selected to compete in Warsaw. He went on to work as Nikolayev's assistant and continued to tour up into the 1960s, mostly in Russia but also with a trip to New York in 1930. In this concert on 11 March 1927 he played –

Gluck-Brahms Gavotte

Scarlatti Pastorale

Chopin 3 mazurkas and a waltz

Liszt Legend no. 2

This is how P. Yakovlev reviewed Shvarts' recital in Kazan on 8 November 1926 –

'Shvarts is a subtle artist. His performance is heartfelt and artistic. This is due to a rarely well-balanced combination of excellent technique and great thoughtfulness. His style is mostly subtle and refined–Chopin, Schumann–but he also succeeds in heroic pieces where he captures both the upward surge and the expressiveness.'

Shvarts, it's worth mentioning, regularly played the music of his friend Shostakovich, all the way into the 1960s.

Shvarts is in the 1924 class picture above.

Konstantin Schmidt (1897-1961) followed him with an all-Liszt programme –

Sonetto 123 del Petrarca, Valse oubliée, and Mephisto Waltz.

Schmidt went on to teach in the conservatory. He was a friend of Alexander Glazunov's, under whose hands he played the composer's Piano Concerto no. 2 three times. His last performance with an orchestra in the Large Hall of the Philharmonia took place with Evgeny Mravinsky in 1936. He played Glazunov's Piano Concerto no. 1.

Schmidt also is in the 1924 class picture above.

There's only one Dmitri Shostakovich. Just trying to imagine him playing Chopin in Warsaw cracks the mind a little. Not to mention the all-Liszt programme he played in 1925 – which I just discovered today and will write a separate article about.

In this concert he played what he had played two months earlier in Poland – Chopin –

2 Nocturnes, 2 Etudes, Ballade no. 3

This is a photo of him in the 1920s looking quite dapper (and a touch powdered up) –

Young Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1920s

You save the best for last. Maria Yudina, a woman of indomitable spirit, expressed herself as usual in her own manner, this time by choosing to play the second piano sonata by Vladimir Shcherbachov.

Shcherbachov taught composition in the Leningrad Conservatory from 1923-31 and 1944-48. Evgeny Mravinsky and Gavriil Popov were among his students. He was dismissed from the conservatory on the same day as Shostakovich – both accused of 'formalism'. In 1936, when he was head of the Leningrad branch of the Union of Composers, he was the only one not to vote to condemn Shostakovich for Lady Macbeth.

You sense there's a reason why Maria Yudina liked him.

Yudina premiered Shcherbachov's Piano Sonata no. 2 in 1926, playing it again on this day in the large hall.

An amazing concert. Shostakovich, Sofronitsky and Maria Yudina went on to receive massive international acclaim – even if they weren't permitted to travel to experience it.

Alexander Kamensky is known and admired in his own country, though in English his name hasn't quite received the recognition it deserves.

Isai Renzin, Josef Shvarts and Konstantin Schmidt, however, are hardly known and hardly mentioned. I have more concert posters, programmes and photos of them, and plan to share them in articles here in the future.

Also I feel there is an unexplored time in Leonid Nikolayev's teaching career. Much focus falls on the late 1910s and early to mid-1920s of his time in the conservatory, but he carried on teaching into the 1930s–which I have class photos and programmes of–yet that time is hardly mentioned. The Leningrad school in general seems to be underappreciated. I assume this is in part due to a dearth of recordings. When you consider the pianists who came from there–including Grigory Sokolov–that shouldn't be the case.

A photo of pianist Leonid Nikolayev in thought

The great Leonid Nikolayev in his later years.

And finally, to fulfil the tease of the special announcement mentioned at the start of this article –

At the bottom of the concert poster, Artur Schnabel's upcoming Beethoven cycle is mentioned. Two concerts –

9 March - an orchestral concert with Alexander Gauk. Schnabel played Piano Concertos 1 and 4 and the Choral Fantasy.

13 March - a solo recital

Unfortunately the print is too small to read the actual programme. I only know about 9 March because I have the data elsewhere. Apparently he played all five concerti that month.

Schnabel quite often played in Russia after the revolution – in 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, and 1935.

  • ADGO 11.03.21

Thank you to Heike for what can't be bought.