Russian pianists at the 1927 Chopin Competition
The very first Chopin Competition took place from 23 to 30 January 1927. Of 26 participating pianists, 16 were from Poland. The remaining 10 came from 7 countries, of which 4 were from the USSR.
Ten days before the start of the competition however, the Soviet Union had prepared to send 5 pianists to Warsaw –
Yuri Bryushkov - born 27 March 1903, a student of Karl Kipp and Konstantin Igumnov.
Grigory Ginzburg - born 29 May 1904, a student of the Goldenweiser family from 6 years old.
Lev Oborin - born 11 September 1907, a student of Elena Gnesina and Konstantin Igumnov.
Josef Shvarts - born 1899, a student of Leonid Nikolayev.
Dmitri Shostakovich - born 25 September 1906, a student of Leonid Nikolayev
Bryushkov, Ginzburg and Oborin studied in Moscow, while Shvarts and Shostakovich were students in the Leningrad Conservatory.
On 14 January 1927, the Russian Philharmonic Society (Rosfil) organised a concert for all 5 to play in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. It was an opportunity to showcase the talent of both of the major cities of the union to an educated public of professors and musicians. In addition–as you can see from how the poster below was divided–it was something of a competition between the two big conservatories – Moscow Conservatory students on the left, Leningrad on the right.
I'm fortunate enough to actually have the details of the programmes of that concert on 14 January. Unfortunately not every piece was clearly identified – in some cases only the key was provided – but in what remains to be filled in, an educated guess could easily be made to complete the details.
2 Nocturnes op. 37 no. 2, G minor
2 Nocturnes op. 37 no. 2, op. 48 no. 1
Polonaise op. 44
The terms of the new Chopin Competition were that all pianists had to play Chopin's Polonaise op. 44, as well as Preludes 8 and 16, two Nocturnes, two Etudes, two Mazurkas, and a Ballade of their choice.
What I would say about the above programmes is that the Leningrad pianists had slightly lighter ones (no preludes included, at least not on the programme). I also like that young Ginzburg concluded his performance with a flourish of etudes.
Musicologist Sergei Bugoslavsky (1888-1945) was in the hall that night. Two days later his review of the concert was published in Izvestia. Although it may lightly smack of Union Pride, it also leaves a taste of how each played and their musical development up to that time.
A concert of five pianists
Rosfil organised a concert of five young pianists (the youngest was 20, the oldest 26) being sent from the USSR to the International Piano Competition in Warsaw on 23 January. All of them became artists after October – all of them truly Soviet pianists. According to the terms of the competition, only Chopin is performed (there are also some mandatory pieces, such as Polonaise op. 44, a piece difficult in the sense of artistic interpretation).
Three of the pianists were from Moscow, two from Leningrad.
Yuri Bryushkov showed a great feeling for Chopin's lyricism as well as mature piano skills and a sense of form. He had a soft, velvety, somewhat veiled sound, much grace and nuanced elegance.
Grigory Ginzburg is a pianist with an outstanding virtuoso facility, but he is still musically immature and becomes easily lost in the layout of his performance, in the balance of sound and phrasing.
The youngest of the performers, Lev Oborin, is equally strong in revealing the logic and the emotional element of Chopin's work. In his playing there is already a harmony of thought, feeling, interpretive will, and the ability to completely master the instrument. Only a youthful enthusiasm for his already outstanding technique makes Oborin play at an excessively fast tempo.
Two performers represented the young pianism of Leningrad. Josef Shvarts is a pianist of mostly virtuoso brilliance and bravura.
Dmitri Shostakovich is an intelligent and consistent musician who clearly understands and reveals the structure of what he's playing.
Sergei Bugoslavsky - 16.01.1927 [I took the liberty of breaking up the long third paragraph of the original print]
And then there were 4. Perhaps as a result of needing to narrow to just four pianists, or perhaps directly a consequence of what might have been inadequate playing in the concert on 14 January, Josef Shvarts was not included in the Soviet contingent for Warsaw. He returned to Leningrad and two months later participated in the recital of Leonid Nikolayev's class.
The Chopin Competition began on 23 January. Back then it had a different structure to what we're used to today – only two rounds, a Main and a Final.
Lev Oborin was the first of the group to play – on the second day, 24 January. Yuri Bryushkov followed on 25 January, then Grigory Ginzburg on 26 and Shostakovich on 27.
You can see all four together with the entire group of participants – including Robert Goldsand, Jakob Gimpel and Maryla Jonas – in this photo with most of the 12 Polish judges (German Alfred Hoehn, the thirteenth, judged only the final, and Aleksander Michalowski withdrew in the first round). I've labelled some of them in the second photo.
Top row - Stanislaw Szpinalski stands at the top right.
All four of the Soviet pianists advanced to the Final Round. However Yuri Bryushkov injured his hand somewhere along the way so could not participate in it.
For the final, the pianists had to choose two movements from one of the piano concerti – either movements 1 and 2, or 2 and 3.
Sofia Khentova, who was Oborin's student and wrote an impressive 1964 biography of him (as well as many other musicians), said that none of the pianists had had a rehearsal before the concerto performance.
Khentova also mentions that in December 1926, 19 year old Oborin had only a third of the Chopin pieces in his repertoire that were required for the competition.
In the final Oborin played Piano Concerto no. 2, op. 21, while Ginzburg and Shostakovich played no. 1, op. 11.
Oborin had only once before played with an orchestra (Prokofiev's PC 3), and he did not learn the concerto in its entirety. Again according to Khentova, 'He did not remember how he played, did not hear the enthusiastic applause of the audience. After he finished playing, he automatically bowed, made it to the green room and....lost consciousness.'
Nonetheless there was an undisputed victor of this first competition, and it was Lev Oborin.
As Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg later recalled, 'Oborin almost died because he was being smothered by the crowd of mad female fans.'
Some things never change.
Stanislaw Szpinalski placed second, Roza Etkin third, and Grigory Ginzburg fourth. Henryk Sztompka received the Polish Radio Prize for his playing of the mazurkas. Both Shostakovich and Yuri Bryushkov received honorary diplomas.
The afterparty – Szpinalski and Ginzburg on the left, Oborin next to them (with the strange coverings on his shoes), and Roza Etkin in front of the piano.
It is strange to think what might have happened to Dmitri Shostakovich had he won. At the time he was still an active and aspiring pianist, playing repertoire as varied as Schumann's Humoreske and Piano Concerto, Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Beethoven's Hammerklavier, and at least one all-Liszt recital. At the time of this competition, Oborin also was composing – he had studied composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky, and had already completed a Fantastic Scherzo for orchestra and 4 pieces for piano, op. 2. Somewhere in a bizarre alternate world, they're referring to Dmitri Shostakovich as an eminent pianist and a teacher of many notable students, and Lev Oborin as the composer who terrifyingly captured the milieu of his culture and time.
As it is, it's worth seeing them again as they actually were – here in a smaller group photo during the 1927 competition.
Second row (l-r) - Robert Goldsand, unknown, Yuri Bryushkov, Dmitri Shostakovich, Grigory Ginzburg, Lev Oborin, unknown.
Also I'd like to point to a composition by Lauma Reinholde (1906-1986), a set of 4 Preludes which are moving and very beautiful.
Some time after the competition, composer Karol Szymanowski made the following observation –
'Regarding the Russian pianists who recently performed in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Lvov, Poznan, and Vilnius...they simply won over our musical world. They came, they played, and they won... This cannot be called success, or even a furore. This was an utter victorious procession, a triumph! This is especially true of the young Oborin, a twenty-two year old [sic] musician, who received the first prize at the Chopin International Competition...This recent Conservatory graduate from Moscow astonished me more than such mature masters as [Nikolai] Orlov and [Alexander] Borovsky...Phenomenal! One may bow in front of him for he creates beauty...'
Incidentally I'm curious why Vladimir Sofronitsky was not included among the Soviet contingent. He was only 25 at the time, and the age limit for the competition was 28. As it happens, on 14 January 1927 he was giving his own recital in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonia – Schumann's Kreisleriana, Carnaval, Sonata no. 1, and Chopin's op. 28 Preludes.
In the end this first competition was a tremendous success, both for the Russian pianists and the competition itself. It set the way for an event which soon would become an elevated tradition and the most prestigious competitive merit of its kind.
Let's leave it to the excessively fingered Chopin of Józef Kurowski's 1837 imagination to raise a toast to the pianists competing in his name.