Novelist Leo Tolstoy, poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev and choreographer George Balanchine were all distinguished Russians in their own fields. Although they lived in different times, they are bound together by their deep love for music.
“Tolstoy’s Waltz,” a CD recently released on King Records, pays tribute to their passion for music, by featuring their compositions as well as those by authors Alexandr Griboedov (1795-1829) and Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-1869), and painters Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) and Pavel Fedotov (1815-1852).
To play the music for the CD, Yukihisa Miyayama, producer of King International Inc., chose not an elder master but Lera Auerbach, a 30-year-old Russian pianist/composer living in New York.
“She is a virtuoso in a long line of great Russian pianists. But she is more than just a pianist,” Miyayama said.
Indeed, Auerbach is also recognized as an accomplished author. Among other accolades, the International Pushkin Society named her Poet of the Year in 1996. According to Miyayama, many Russians say she deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Tolstoy’s Waltz” is Auerbach’s recording debut as a pianist, but she has already made a strong impression through her compositions. BIS, Northern Europe’s largest record label, has begun releasing a CD series of her compositions. Meanwhile, Sikorsky Music Publishers in Hamburg is publishing all her compositions, making her the youngest composer to receive such treatment.
Auerbach was born in 1973 in Chelyabinsk, an industrial town in the Ural Mountains. At age 8, she soloed with an orchestra and at 12, she composed an opera (from her own libretto), which toured the nation.
Auerbach was one of the last Russian artists to defect. She left the former Soviet Union forever in 1991, defecting during a concert tour of the United States.
“I realized that I needed to be in New York in order to grow as an artist,” she said in an e-mail interview.
She went on to receive bachelor and master’s degrees in music at The Julliard School in New York.
When approached about Miyayama’s CD project, Auerbach said she was initially skeptical.
“I didn’t know the music of these authors, with the exception of Pasternak and Griboedov. But I was curious — so I asked to see the scores and was quite surprised at the overall quality of the compositions.”
The CD opens with the title piece: Tolstoy’s one-minute-34-second “Waltz.”
“There is nothing of genius about his [Tolstoy’s] waltz except his name at the top of the page,” Auerbach said. “However, it is very lovely music, mirroring the style of the ballroom or salon pieces of his time. One can easily imagine Natasha Rostova [of “War and Peace”] dancing to this waltz.”
Miyayama happened by chance upon music by Pasternak and Polenov, and the project grew from there. With the help of his Russian wife, Marina Tiourcheva, a former researcher at the Tchaikovsky Museum, he obtained compositions from the Tolstoy Museum at Yasnaya Polyana and other sources.
“In general, I only accept projects where I believe I could add something unique to the interpretation and understanding of the music. That applies also for the standard repertoire. Otherwise, why do it at all?”
Auerbach said the CD recording was not a simple task: “These works can’t be played in a straightforward way. They require imagination, freedom and understanding of the style from the performer. Some of the works, like Tolstoy’s “Waltz,” are rather simple, and to combine simplicity with elegance and style is perhaps the most difficult thing.”
She called Pasternak, the author of “Doctor Zhivago,” the most gifted composer in this collection. “Pasternak’s music, like his poetry, is like burning ecstasy,” she said.
Asked what artistic activity is the most important for her, Auerbach said, “Composition and performance are connected. If we were living in the late 19th century or even the early 20th, this would never be in question.
“My musical schedule is booked about three years ahead with concerts, recordings and commissions. I write literary works on my own schedule.”
Miyayama said that Auerbach was well suited to perform the pieces by Balanchine and Diaghilev because ballet companies are using her compositions. John Neumeier of the Hamburg Ballet choreographed a ballet using two of Auerbach’s compositions. She is now working with him on a production of “The Little Mermaid,” which was commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen next year.
Ultimately, it is her strong roots in the Russian cultural tradition that gave depth to her performance on the CD, Miyayama said.
“Whether it is Tolstoy or other authors, if you listen to Auerbach play, scenes from their works are before your eyes.
“When she finished Balanchine’s piece [the last piece on the CD], she was completely spent. Through her rendition, the listener feels the extreme loneliness Balanchine experienced in his late years despite the illustriousness of his career. “
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