“Soft sadness and a lot of humour”

Written by: Ying Chang

If you’ve never thought about the Ukraine (“Where is your country, exactly?” is a question Ukrainians are often asked, they tell me), what you need to know for the purposes of this article, is this. It is the place where Russian civilisation (and even its name) began in the 8th-century. It is a country slightly larger than France in size and population. It has a language roughly 70% the same as Russian. It has an extensive musical tradition still barely being discovered abroad. And did you know that Richter, Horowitz, Gilels, Oistrakh, even the late Isaac Stern (who had died just two days before this interview), were all from the Ukraine? And, oh yes, the bottom left-hand corner of the former Soviet Union is where you look on the atlas.

Violinist Viktoriya Grigoreva is petite, and a smile is rarely absent from her voice. She has a bird-like charm – though the principle of seriousness too, of an owl, perhaps. She is from Kharkov in Eastern Ukraine where she quickly established a career leading the symphony and chamber orchestras at the Conservatoire, a teaching post immediately offered after graduation. For personal and professional reasons she is rebuilding her career in the UK, though she returns frequently to the Ukraine to perform. I met her two days before she gave the UK première of her compatriot Valentin Silvestrov’s Post Scriptum Sonata at London’s Wigmore Hall.

While Russian music needs no introduction, its Ukrainian equivalent is still a set of shadowy names and a few articles in Grove. Prokofiev, who was himself Ukrainian, records, in the diary of his return to the Soviet Union, being played various pieces by a delegation of nationalistic enthusiasts. He was quite scathing on that occasion; instead, we are merely ignorant. A few recordings, mainly of orchestral music by composers such as Lysenko and Lyatoshynsky, have recently appeared. Beyond this, we take on-trust the provenance of Ukrainian folksong in a number of well-loved Russian pieces.

Grigoreva is disarmingly modest about her capacity to pronounce on Ukrainian music, and rightly cautious about not emphasising its differences from, as opposed to its similarities with, its Russian sibling. She is at pains to point out the historical links between the two peoples, the extent to which they are indissolubly interlinked. In fact, she is from near the border with Russia, and speaks significantly more Russian than Ukrainian when there. While she acknowledges the quality of Ukrainian music composed in the 18th- and 19th-centuries, she doubts if any of it has quite the quality of, say, Mussorgsky or Borodin, something exacerbated by the historical importance of Moscow as the cultural centre.

So can we talk of a separate Ukrainian tradition? Grigoreva is initially cagey. “When [Ukrainian composers] use folk tunes there is a different colour from Russian music,” she will only say, amused that I should be seeking a journalistic soundbite for a distinctive musical identity. But, when pressed, her speculations are illuminating in a cultural as well as musical sense. Ukrainian folk music is rhythmically distinct, the “fast music” linked to the “very acrobatic” character of quick dances. While Ukrainians share their high standards of intellectuality and musical education with Russians, the people “take life in their stride” and are “I would say, happier [than Russians] … generally, a happy people”. Even their unhappiness is expressed as “soft sadness, rather than tragic”. It is a culture that emphasises the family and the everyday at the expense of politics or over-analysis. “And always with a lot of humour”. Indeed, her most interesting observation is that very little slow, sad Ukrainian folk music, if any, is in minor keys.

The Ukraine has been the nursery of an unparalleled number of the twentieth century’s greatest performers, particularly pianists and violinists, their regional origins obscured from us in the West because we were used to regarding the Soviet Union as a geographical monolith. But Grigoreva is swift to attribute this wealth of talent to the concentration of Jewish settlement than to draw links between the strength of the performing tradition and the existence of a compositional one.

I am curious to hear how central a role this musical tradition has played in the lives of artists within the Ukraine. A substantial but under-stated one, it seems. An element of Ukrainian music was compulsory in conservatory studies; performance of solo and ensemble works being required. But during the existence of the Soviet Union, it was music “always kept within the city,” although Grigoreva speaks enthusiastically of music festivals within the Ukraine.

As for what she chooses to play, Grigoreva speaks as a performer, not an academic; she simply finds individual pieces “fantastic,” and hopes in time to record them. “When I first heard [the Silvestrov] I felt it came from another world. He speaks of himself as a post-modern composer, even using the phrase ’meta-music’. It’s clear that he has taken on board the post-structuralist, deconstructive theories of the ’sixties and ’seventies. His music is dense with instructions and indications” – indeed, Drama, for piano trio (1970-1), requires something akin to choreography: the violinist starts offstage and the pianist performs unconventional actions with the piano! “There is always a programme in his music; it is very descriptive”. Yet Silvestrov’s music remains immediately appealing and is rooted strongly in the tradition it critiques. The sonata itself is “very gentle. I could say there is a soft sadness in it; it is very lyrical, almost sentimental”. Silvestrov’s compositions are published only in Germany.

Of other contemporary composers, Grigoreva draws my attention to Miroslav Skoric. His music is “very colourful and sparkling, quite pure and very natural,” as well as drawing on folk and jazz influences. His music can only be obtained from the composer direct, although his American admirers are now ensuring publication. Grigoreva wonders if Silvestrov’s denseness of commentary, shared by two other composers whose works she has performed, Skoric and Kosenko, may be a general characteristic.

Her Wigmore Hall appearance is her debut there. Her duo partnership with Jill Crossland is already three years old. She speaks affectionately of their collaboration – particularly of the music they have introduced to each other: Bach’s sonatas with piano were previously new to her; the Ravel Sonata, as well as the Ukrainian repertoire, new to Crossland.

“The violin is a very specific instrument,” says Grigoreva, apropos of taking-up the violin as a child because her sister played it, and continuing with it when her relative preferred the piano. “You have to bring out the sound. If you have that sound in your mind and soul, you can do it, but many musically-gifted children would be better off taking up another instrument, since it is also a matter of physique, of muscle memory.”

Learning the violin, says Grigoreva, has something “intuitive” about it, it is more than precision. Teaching is clearly both love and responsibility for her – she would not like to perform so frequently that continuity for her students would be fractured. She speaks with animation of a favourite age for pupils, starting from thirteen or fourteen, “when they are waking up, and it’s also the last opportunity to put skills in their hands”. As one might guess, she praises the professionalism with which aspiring violinists are trained in the former Soviet Union; many of the “huge numbers of talented children” in the UK do not receive the same opportunities at school, the same intensity of lessons. “Routine is the main basis for learning anything. You have to be on a chart to get somewhere; you can’t just jump from [place to place]”.

Grigoreva speaks of living in London, of the difficulties of professional and cultural adjustment, of beginning to feel enough at home to have missed London when she is away, and of an English culture that emphasises private life like her native one. She is grateful for her Fellowship at the Royal College of Music for giving her links with the musical community here. Everything is said modestly, positively and with integrity. I leave warmed and with a strong idea of what kind of interpretations I shall be hearing in two days’ time.

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