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Why did the Soviets not want us to know about the pianist Maria Grinberg?

She was one of only four women to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas but the state kept her in obscurity

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Only four women pianists have recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas: Maria Grinberg, Annie Fischer, H. J. Lim and Mari Kodama. I’ve written before about the chain-smoking ‘Ashtray Annie’ Fischer: she was a true poet of the piano and her Beethoven sonatas are remarkably penetrating — as, alas, is the sound of her beaten-up Bösendorfer. Lim produced her cycle in a hurry when she was just 24; it’s engaging but breathless. Kodama’s set, just completed, is a bit polite.

Which leaves Maria Grinberg (1908–78), whose recordings remain just where the Soviet authorities wanted them. In obscurity. That is shameful — and not because she was the first woman and the first Russian to record all the sonatas. (In those days Jews from Odessa in Ukraine counted as Russians.) This is an unforgettable cycle. Unforgettable, that is, in the unlikely event that you’ve heard it.

Grinberg’s insights linger in the mind even if you don’t particularly like what she’s doing. In the finale of the Moonlight, for example, the chords at the top of the arpeggios would drown out a tractor factory. But elsewhere in the movement the treble melts away to reveal the ingenuity below the stave.

That’s a Grinberg hallmark. She balances voices to shift the listener’s perspective. I kept hearing dotted rhythms and crossed hands that I’d failed to pick up in other performances. The lower octaves ring out with unusual clarity. Perhaps that’s something to do with the fact that, as a young woman, Grinberg lost her state-funded job as a pianist and worked as an orchestral timpanist.

No one communicated better the polyphonic sweetness of late Beethoven. Listen to the mini-motet that precedes the final storm in the fugue of the Hammerklavier. Grinberg plays it with glowing serenity; for a moment we could be in the Sistine Chapel.


Why is she forgotten? Her problem wasn’t just that she was Jewish but, from the point of view of the authorities, that she was the wrong sort of Jew. Her father and husband had been executed by Stalin as enemies of the state. The shadow never lifted.

Admittedly, there was really no such thing as the right sort of Jew in the Soviet Union. If Jews had to be anything, then the authorities were reasonably happy for them to be musicians. Like the Nazis, the Soviets used top-flight orchestras as tools of propaganda. Unlike them, they couldn’t maintain standards of performance without Jews.

Nearly half the professional musicians in Russia were Jewish, as were an even higher proportion of virtuoso soloists, including the violinists David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, the pianists Emil Gilels and Lazar Berman and the cellist Daniil Shafran. When they travelled abroad they were watched by the KGB. (Well, maybe not Kogan: as Norman Lebrecht revealed in The Spectator, but his Wiki entry fails to mention, he was a Soviet spook who kept tabs on his brother-in-law Gilels.)

The Kremlin could never forget that it had lost Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz, both Russian Jews who dazzled from the United States. When Berman’s international career was at its height, he was suddenly banished to the provinces (but he defected anyway). Even the mighty Gilels was kept at home if the Soviet Union was sulking about what it always called ‘Israeli aggression’.

The model Jewish virtuoso left Russia to win a big international competition, coming straight back after attracting headlines that mentioned his citizenship but not his background. Few things annoyed the Soviets more than references to Russian-Jewish identity; every other ethnic group was expected to parade its musical heritage, but Jews did so at their peril. No klezmer encores, please, and no Hebrew melodies in compositions. The non-Jewish Shostakovich was playing with fire when he ignored Russian folk traditions and returned obsessively to melancholy Jewish ones.

This ridiculous cat-and-mouse game was played at every level, though with varying degrees of cruelty. Sometimes the logic was hard to follow, and especially so in the case of Maria Grinberg.

Her historic Beethoven LPs were produced by the state label Melodiya, yet when they appeared in 1970 the Soviet press wrote not a word abut them. Towards the end of her life she was allowed to give a handful of concerts in the Netherlands, but that was it. When she died, aged 69, the authorities couldn’t decide whether she should be honoured or ignored. They settled for a mixture of both.

Perhaps her mistake was failing to criticise Israel, which several more celebrated Jewish musicians were arm-twisted into doing. On the contrary: in 1967, when ‘aggressive’ Israel humiliated its Soviet-allied neighbours, Maria Israelyevna Grinberg took to introducing herself as ‘Maria Aggressorovna’.

Not until 2012 did Melodiya get round to issuing Grinberg’s Beethoven sonatas as a CD boxed set. It has already disappeared from Amazon. Some things don’t change. Fortunately they found their way on to Spotify, and many other recordings — including an exultant Brahms First Piano Concerto — have surfaced on YouTube. Is it too much to hope that the internet will finally lift her out of the shadows?


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