The Russian concert pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina, little known in the West, died this day, November 19, in 1970. She had a fervent cult following in the Soviet Union, partly because of her resistance to the establishment –- she promoted avant-garde composers like Stravinsky and Bartok, she recited banned poetry at her performances, and she was a devout and serious Christian at a time when monasteries were being into concentration camps –- but mostly because of her masterful interpretations of Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart and many others. Her repertoire was huge. A deeply eccentric women, she wore floor-length black dress her whole adult life, to which, in later years, she added tennis shoes.
Shostakovich greatly admired her:
Yudina played Liszt like no one else . . . She played energetically and forcefully . . . She had powerful and rather masculine hands with long, sturdy fingers. She held them in a unique way so that they resembled an eagle’s claws . . .
Yudina was famous for being Stalin’s favorite pianist. The following story is from Testimony, the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich:
In his final years . . . Stalin didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee, where the administration was, and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes man, a yes man to a madman.
Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.
Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.
I think this a unique event in the history of recording —- I mean changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy and sent it to Stalin. Now, that was a record record. A record in yessing.
Soon afterward, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable; Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you Iosif Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”
And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.
Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the leader and teacher was found dead in his dacha. I was the last thing he had listened to.