It’s maybe worth taking note of various great Ukrainian musicians and quoting some of the equally great Russians they collaborated with, or studied: Sergei Prokofiev (Sviatoslav Richter); David Oistrakh (Kyrill Kondrashin; Rudolf Barshai): Nathan Milstein (Horowitz, Glazunov); Leonid Kogan (Rostropovich; Gilels); Valentina Lisitsa (due to record Rachmaninov’s complete piano works. She has already recorded the complete Tchaikovsky solo piano pieces); Shura Cherkassky (Yuri Temirkanov) and so forth. I doubt that any of these musicians, when collaborating, would have given the least thought to their place of birth, or the origins of their musical collaborators. The music and only the music is what bound them. In that they were as close as it was possible to get.

I myself had Ukrainian grandparents on my mother’s side. But there’s a catch. The very word Ukrainian didn’t enter my life prior to the fall of Communism. Until then, I’d always (proudly) considered myself part-Russian (the Odesa-born violinist David Oistrakh was a member of my maternal grandmother’s family). That’s certainly how I thought when I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg 30 or so years ago. Now I find myself erecting mental/emotional barriers where previously there weren’t any – all because of one sick man. I have to stop myself doing that.

By and large the Russian people have nothing to do with this. They are pawns in a ghastly, murderous game. The Ukrainians are behaving impeccably, led by a true hero. There was a heart-breaking shot on TV this morning of an 8/9-years old kid stomping along the road crying his eyes out.  It broke my heart. I could imagine my granddaughter in the same position (God forbid), reacting in much the same way. Even Valery Gergiev, foolish as he appears to have been, made some wonderful music at home and abroad – Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and so much more. Are we now to turn our backs on his considerable musical achievements because of his silence re Putin? Has it occurred to anyone that he knows things that we don’t, that he can’t openly disclose (maybe regarding Putin’s sate of health, for example)? He can easily see how much support Zelenskyy is receiving and is possibly grateful. The air will have to clear and all the gun/bomb-smoke with it before we can make accurate judgements about who says or thinks what, who is silent, and who isn’t. Gergiev could still be found wanting big-time, that’s for sure … but wait and see. In the meantime, let’s be nourished by all the amazing Ukrainian/Russian musicians. 


  1. Thanks for these compassionate words or sanity, which could be set to music. Whose might it be? There are loud and soft passages here, some fast, some slower and more thoughtful. But this is merely a thank you note, for all you give and do.


  2. tames

    I agree Rob. I was astounded by the amount of Russian musicians that are being “cancelled”. Some may even have family members that are threatened if they speak out against the Russian government. We just don’t know what the motivations are. Such a sad time.


  3. Andrea Lechner

    Your piece brings to mind what Barenboim said to the audience on his last concert with the East West Divan before leaving Chicago, where he was conductor in chief. He spoke about music making without nationality, race or creed. Just music making. Let’s not allow ourselves to condemn ordinary Russians because their demented leader is taking blood curdling decisions about other people’s lives. I agree with you Rob that music should be above and beyond politics.


    1. Thank you for that Andrea. Is there a single piece of great music that brings politics – and politics only – to mind while you’re listening to it? Even the ideology-motivated works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev (for example) can be interpreted in a broad, non-political context, ie personal rather than governmental oppression. That’s why Shostakovich symphonies 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14 & 15 (not to mention Prokofiev 5 & 6) shake you to your roots without asking to see your party card. At least that’s my view. Best wishes. Rob.


      1. Andrea Lechner

        Absolutely bang on – even when pieces were composed to protest against a totalitarian regime, we hear the music first and foremost, rather than contemplate politics while listening. I am minded to re-read The Master and Margarita, written by somebody who successfully expressed his misgivings through words rather than music, yet oh so subtly.


  4. Les Berger

    What a heartfelt, moving article, Rob. I have to admit to some misgivings about Gergiev, recalling his statements about Crimea in 2014. But all the same, I feel that music transcends borders and nationalities. Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (one of my favourite works) has never seemed more relevant. Meanwhile, I feel for the Russian people, misled by propaganda and state-controlled media, as well as for the Ukrainians’ desperate plight and their noble (Jewish!) President.


    1. Thanks Les. Agreed about Shostakovich 11, much maligned in some quarters but for us two (evidently) one of DSCH’s most powerful and atmospheric works (Mravinsky’s classic Melodiya is surely the best). Wonderful moment when the Ukrainian President’s words were relayed and cheered at the Commons last night. Just received a big set of Kurt Masur’s Warner Classics recordings. There was another brave man who face hostile officialdom and came off the better. Might cover it on this site. Keep well. Rob


      1. Leslie Berger

        I seem to recall your Gramophone colleague Edward Seckerson writing that Shostakovich 11 was the greatest symphony of the 20th century – debatable, perhaps, when one thinks of such diverse works as Sibelius 2, Mahler 9, Elgar 2, Roy Harris 3, etc – but then why compare? I’ve loved the work since I discovered it in about 1959 and have eighteen different versions, including the marvellous, if poorly recorded, Mravinsky. However, for me the one that really hits the spot is Sir John Pritchard’s BBC Archive recording of the live RFH performance with the BBC SO from 1985. Again, shame about the recording, but what a performance!

        Hope the prostate is treating you kindly!
        Regards, Les


  5. Thanks again Andrea. When I interviewed the pianist Dmitri Alexeev many years ago The Master and Margarita was the Russian novel he most recommended I read. I’ve still not got round to it so you’ve given me another prompt. Thank you!


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