Dmitry Potemin

Dmitry Potemin, violinist, member of the Soloists of Moscow ensemble, performer of chamber music, teacher, record collector. In the 1960s, Potyemin studied in Leningrad’s Specialized Music School and lived in the school dormitory in a room adjacent to Hirshhorn. According to local lore, Hirshhorn once said: "now I am studying how to play double stops harmonics like Dima Potyemin, and then, generally speaking, I will have no need to practice further."


That is how it actually was. At the time, I made some fingering discoveries that Philippe asked me to show him. It was our custom in the dormitory to listen to one another, and Philippe himself often summoned us to hear him. But this time he came to me and I played for him those harmonics. What do you think he did? He turned around and left without saying a word (laughs). That’s the kind of fellow he was. But he mellowed with the passing years. We later met sometimes in the West. Our paths crossed on concert tours, at festivals. It was always unplanned. Philippe would still wave his bow at me, saying, "Potyemin, go away, go away!" That’s if I caught him playing. Surely, that was because to a certain extent I knew his ideas.I knew him from up close, knew what preoccupied him. So, he believed that I could understand something. That’s how I see it.

And what can you say about his ideas?

By way of an answer, let me tell you how he played "Erlkoenig," because I will never forget that. I dream about it at night even today. Can you believe it? And, at the time, he was just a kid, seventeen years old. He performed this "Erlkoenig" for Vaiman when he came to try out for Leningrad. Vaiman said: "I’ll take you, I’ll be your professor. But I myself cannot do that." You could hear four instruments – four different instruments! And no extraneous sounds, everything was flawless, though the chords there are on all four strings. How is this possible? All of this on his own simple violin – the one he called his "pregnant Tyrolian"...

Hirshhorn 17 y.o.

a photo for the "Leningradskaya Pradva" newspaper


Did you hear him playing it in a room or on stage?

Both in a room and on stage, more than once... In my image of him now, nearly twenty years after Philippe’s death, he was a tragic personality. His fate, his character, plus his talent. There is such a thing as a light artistic endowment. You know, a light burden, when a man does not get lost in his thoughts. They say that Mozart was like that, but I don’t think so. I think that Mozart was immeasurably deep, and Philippe in his early years was also immeasurably deep. It gave you goose bumps. Where did that come from? And later from these depths to the most sublime, angelic sound! What fantastic tension, what range! You have to get this from somewhere, or was it built into the man? I always felt in him these polar things, and immeasurable depth was exactly that. That’s my inner impression of "Erlkoenig." I got it when I was still аn adolescent, though now I am 65. Later there were the transitions "there," to the other side, in the Bach concerto. What he did! And not only in the second movement. How can I convey what he did there? God pointed him out, and that is the beginning and end of it. For that reason, I don’t believe he had any teacher. Yes, there were Vaiman and Sturestep, but in what comprised his manner, he found it all on his own. Self-taught. Already at age eighteen, you couldn’t categorize him in any box. Moreover, he already had his own recordings at the time. He was tape recorded in Riga: the Sixth Sonata of Isaye and Habanera. He once made an experiment: he presented these recordings to Vaiman. "What do you think, Mikhail Izrailevich? What do you take this for?" Vaiman replied: "It seems to me that this is young Menuhin.”And Philippe said: "No, that is me at age fifteen."

Not everyone is capable of bearing the burden of such brilliant artistic gifts as he. You need gigantic strength to carry this burden all the time, tо lift it each time. And when you lead a life under compulsion, when you find yourself on the conveyor, when you play the same works all the time… Philippe was an impulsive person. He should have played when he deemed it necessary, not by command of others. People like George Enescu suffered from this, for example. When he landed in America, he went there for the first time as a violinist. Even Rakhmaninov. And as regards life as it still was here, only here could they could treat Philippe so poorly. They silenced him. Take his first concert after the Queen Elizabeth Competition. There wasn’t a single journalist present, not a single music review appeared afterwards. That very same concert where he played Bach, Mozart, Paganini. And he played in a way that could make you crazy. For example, his Bach concerto. When Vinnikov played this concerto at the third round of the Tchaikovsky competition, they arranged a twenty-minute ovation – and it was all recorded! But when Philippe played it, it was fantastic. This is something really instructive!

It’s a real pity that there is no complete video recording of his Paganini concerto at the Queen Elisabeth competition. For example, there are typically Hirshhorn moments in the right hand, when ricochets up and down transition into staccato. Generally speaking, no one plays like that. Or the first capriccio as he played it: slowly, like a jackhammer -ta-ta-ta-ta. He had his fine bow strike, and that, too, no one does any more. Just imagine the kind of inner laboratory he needed in order to realize this. If no one but him does this any more, then you cannot teach it.The Bartok sonata, the beginning of the fugue – with him it sounded like a little trombone. Where did he get that timbre? You have to hear it from the beginning in order to realize, to find what and how. Or, then again, his "Tzigane" – how he worked at it. I will never forget it.

All the time from behind the door you could hear "B-B," "B-B" – and nothing more. That’s how it was all day long, for ten hours. In such a small room next to the bathroom. What was he searching for? We don’t know. But when he played passages in the finale of Paganini with a grand spiccato, then from behind the closed door it seemed that this was some kind of violinist giant who was playing a dense and quick staccato. That was the impression from this bow strike, that was the quality of the strike. But he did not have a quick staccato, though the strikes were fantastic. No one could or can equal it, and it is a pity that this was never recorded, precisely back then, even on just the equipment available in those studios. I don’t know if it would make the same impression now, but I think it would. Take the Paganini concerto, for example. Partly it conveys the man…and then you have the diametrically opposed concerto of Bach. There he doesn’t apply any of the modern techniques, non vibrato and so forth. The means of expressiveness remain the same.He knew how to use these resources to break out in any direction, basically without changing anything, and using old resources he achieved fantastic results. You could hear it in his Bach like nowhere else, this is also a live recording.

Philippe would enter the room and study the acoustics, extracting all its possibilities. Not only did he play, but he knew how to find the acoustics of specific premises through his violin. This even harmed him somewhat in the sense of metro-rhythm. Let’s say his timing for the change of chords in Bach was off: that was precisely the result of these practices. I never, ever heard him work on intonation, never. I asked him once: "Hirsh, did you ever play the scales?" He replied: "I played them till I was 11." And after that he had no need of them.

Hands, yes. He sometimes clowned around, hung his hand over his elbow – the forearm – and it spun around like a propeller, literally like a propeller. He could hold down four "A"s on the violin. Three octaves beginning with the first position. That’s not because he had long fingers, like Paganini, but because these places (he points to the vestigial membrane between the fingers at their base) were in him like sports rubber. Paganini could get four "D"s. I think if he strained, he might have gotten four "A"s. With his stretch and suppleness, Hirshhorn often had unusual fingering. There was one time when we met in the West – it was the concert at which they recorded the Concertanta, in Camerino. Philippe came up to us during the rehearsal, in a break, and my neighbor on the music stand says to him: "Dima has told me a lot about you. For example, in one place in the Paganini concerto, where without shifting you…" And Philippe showed us a piece from the third sonata of Brahms – where on the g-string there also is no shift but a step by finger extension. I later asked my neighbor: "Well, what do you think?" He said to me: "May the devil take you! He has fingers like a monkey!"...


For this concert in Camerino, we traveled for eighteen hours one way by bus from Montpelier. No one gave a thought to where we were going and why. That’s life on tour. You know, they tell you where and then off you go. And now we see Hirshhorn in the rehearsal. It was, of course, a dumb founded audience, and Philippe got so upset that he took a smoke right on the stage. It’s understandable. All around you saw those same faces sitting there, the ones whom he thought he had left behind. And it was difficult to play; the ensemble just didn’t work out, and there was very little time, a short rehearsal. During the intermission, he said: "Potyemin, what are we going to do? We have somehow to pull this together…" I said: "Hirsh, take it easy. Just play your part". And he played - a remarkable recording remained.

Our people then gathered around Philippe, and they were chatting with him almost the whole night. He did not want to emigrate. I know that for a fact. Unappealing faces? Yes, but… Here there was an audience. The concert halls were filled to overflowing. You couldn’t get tickets. From Moscow and Petersburg people arrived especially to hear him and they sat with their little tape recorders, taping him. At the post-competition concert, there was no press. I believe this was the action of those people who envied him. I will not name names. Those who hate people with genuine artistic gifts. Yes, and why would they need him? Such an intellectual, someone who didn’t play any games, was busy with his own affairs, did not take part in political gatherings… just busy with himself. Even Yankelevich did not like him. He recognized the talent, but just barely. After all, Hirshhorn was not his boy. You could even hear how someone would say: "Hirshhorn is not a virtuoso." Maybe they had in mind that his real inner being was more that of a musician than of a virtuoso violinist. Although in him there was precisely that combination of both, plus something else that amazes you.

Well, and of course, Philippe did not search for words. He could say what he wished, to whomever he was talking. For example, in Genoa, at the Paganini Competition – after the second prize which, of course, was unjust and everyone understood it – he bumped into Kogan in the elevator and said to him, "Leonid Borisovich, I’ve just gotten a lot of money. What do you advise, what should I spend it on, what should I buy? People say you are good at that…."

And what did he advise?

History is silent on that…but I remember precisely that he took with him from Genoa a switchblade – the kind of knife with a blade that springs out – and he walked along the corridors with it, scaring the dormitory boys.

Is it true that he wanted to play the Brahms concerto at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, and not the Paganini?

Yes, it’s true. Vaiman was adamant – either Paganini, or there’s no Brussels. Maybe this was right. Brahms would have been just very good, but in Paganini, Philippe could stun everyone. By the way, I don’t recall that during those years he played the Brahms concerto. We put on a Menuhin record, we heard him. Philippe only learned Sibelius in the West. He played Shostakovich. I remember precisely how once he said: "My Paganini, Leonid’s Paganini"… That was in Finland. We were discussing the Brussels competition, and such a sentence was spoken. Philippe believed that the pioneer was Kogan, who also played Paganini in Brussels, and a very good recording remained, especially for those times. Surely, for this Kogan would forgive him that incident in the elevator; though they skipped him in Brussels a year after that. From the beginning they did not want it – they said he was not ready, but Vaiman vouched for him, said that he will be ready. Vaiman defended him and he really worked at it, prepared himself and got ready. But when Philippe heard this "not ready", he said that then he will move over to the piano. He actually played the piano. I don’t know how well from a professional point of view. I only heard him play Mozart sonatas. Here again was the man’s gifts… But in the end, he went to Brussels. And though Oistrakh reinsured himself by taking two along, nothing went a miss. Hirshhorn beat them all, and with a very big lead in points.

People say that after he played the Bartok sonata there (you did not have to play the whole sonata, only the Ciaccona – the first movement), Menuhin came up to him and said: "Yes, this sonata was written for me, but you play it better". And in his youth, Philippe had just about prayed to Menuhin; he heard his records. One hundred times straight, the beginning of the fifth sonata of Beethoven, for example. Only the first phrase. He reveled in it. I don’t know whether this love later remained with him, but then this is how it was.

And how did he feel about Oistrakh?

I think he respected him. I once heard Hirshhorn in the First Sonata of Prokofiev. I liked it, went up to him and congratulated him. Around him there was still Oleg Krysa – this was in the 1980s in Finland. Krysa was correcting some note, and in this conversation Philippe commented very favorably on Oistrakh. He said something like "this even occurs with Oistrakh'' – meaning he showed deep respect. And he once said to Tretiakov: "You can not play this passage" – in the second part of Sibelius. This here: C-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-G.. And this: C-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-G... This happened in my presence when I came up to him in 1968 to congratulate him in Moscow, in the Small Hall, in the artist’s rooms – there stood Tretiakov at the door and Philippe was saying: "Well why are you standing there so modestly, come in". It was the same concert about which Misha Maisky speaks, where he played "La plus que lente" – his only concert in Moscow at that time. There was no recording whatsoever there. Kogan played in 1949 24 cаpriccios and forbade them to place microphones, though at the time he played the violin very well, and was not just a connoisseur of clothes… that was fear. No one recorded Hirsh. By a miracle only Vitya Kozlov got these recordings of the Bach and Mozart concertos; he took them down on Leningrad radio at the start of the 80s, afraid that someone will enter the room, but it didn’t happen.

Is it true that he left Brussels with a suitcase full of disks with his recordings of his competition performances?

Not a suitcase but there was a box with vinyl records. Philippe later gave all of these away and not one remained. In general, he was a generous person. Even from the dormitory days I recall how he got parcels from Riga, always with some liqueur, "Solnyshko" cigarettes – and we consumed them.

Liqueur? Right in the dormitory?

Of course. We did there as we liked. We did not keep our tutors in the loop. We always kept together, especially out on the street, because you just had to go out of the school and people would come up to you and take away your money. We arranged hops at night… Once there was a curious occurrence in the dormitory. I was standing in the bathroom and was trying to learn the A-minor etude of Venyavsky. In comes Hirshhorn and suddenly says: "If you want, let’s cut the time, 15 minutes." And in fifteen minutes he comes and plays this etude as I couldn’t do if I spent my whole life working at it for days at a time. But, of course, this wasn’t from scratch; he already played it previously. Then I think how once we arranged a competition between him and Heifetz! Do you remember that small Soviet record with a blue label where on one side there was the Introduction and Rondo-Capriccioso, and on the other side the Gypsy Airs? Heifetz plays in the Rondo-Capriccioso coda for 42 seconds, but Hirshhorn played for 35. We measured it.

Yes, but the main thing is how you play... 

(inexpressible look) Everything was there as needed. Each note was audible. And how Hirsh worked – I haven’t yet told you. This is how it was: at twelve noon he began to play – and continued till three in the morning. I don’t exaggerate. Ilya Grubert said that once in Riga over the course of the summer Hirshhorn learned all ten sonatas of Beethoven. But it was later, in the conservatory, that the guy really worked at it. Moreover, he also managed to read.He loved Babel and always cited him. He also managed to listen to music. We heard a lot of recordings. He and Gidon had a phonograph in the room. Although the poverty generally was indescribable, especially by today’s standards. For example, Philippe, Misha Maisky and one other viola player had one concert jacket for the three of them. They were approximately of the same complexion and put it on in turn for appearances. They had nothing, but there was a phonograph player. Philippe brought in records, though then you could hardly get hold of anything. He had some kind of source in Riga. At that time there were many Western recordings reissued in the GDR. We listened to everything then available from Menuhin, for example. Schering. And I was at the open lesson given by Schering, in the Small Hall of the Conservatory.

And what happened? Did Schering really go limp?

Yes, he was so impressed! He autographed some of his big photographs on the reverse side for Hirshhorn. I even remember the dates. This was in 1966, the sixth, eighth and ninth of May Schering played concerts. We were at all of them. And on the ninth there was this open lesson. Apart from Philippe, Rimma Sushanskaja played there. In those years, we even heard Senofsky. He arrived in Leningrad, and Philippe and I sat together at the concert. Philippe later took something from him in the Tzigane – there’s a glissando upwards, and Senofsky played it by octaves. Now Philippe began to do the same, and it is even recorded. Later, it is true, he rejected this idea.

I remember how he played Isaye’s Ballad Sonata. He even took it to Moscow for what was called the "Special Music Schools" Competition, in 1963 or ’64. I have to say that he could not stand Moscow. He said that there everyone was a Heifetz and no one, a Menuhin. And Moscow paid him back in kind. Do you know that he was thrown out of the Central Music School? And so it just didn’t work out. I asked Philippe how it all went, and he said: "There in the jury Barinova conversed very loudly.'' But the Ballad Sonata starts out from nothing. "She conversed loudly and I could not concentrate." As a result, Tretiakov won the competition with the concerto of Khachaturyan.

I remember how Philippe in that dormitory room behind the wall played the Scriabin Etude in 3rds arranged by Szigeti. He was playing then a lot of acrobatic music, a lot with focused purpose as well, and he referred moreover to what Rikhter did - "at age 17, you have to play virtuoso things, the more the better."

As for ''Erlkoenig,'' – there even the word "stunning" is not suitable. That was a kind of mystical hunt, a mystical horror, as if people are chasing you down. It sent a chill down your spine. We are living in an age when people do not believe in literary images. They say that Paganini was generally mediocre, that for sure he played with some extraneous sounds and false notes. That’s what you’ll hear from some little professor. Yet, Schubert said that he heard the singing of angels when Paganini played. What are we saying? That Schubert, Chopin, Delacroix, Musset were idiots? They all were wild about Paganini, were stuck on him. So he was not a charlatan… But now everyone thinks that they have grabbed God, the Father by the beard. We are so smart. But no one really understands anything in fact. They think that once you have technical progress, then all that was before is not important.Therefore, when you recall how Hirshhorn played "Erlkoenig", you understand that when brilliant people wrote about brilliant people that was not just to produce a pretty text. What I am saying can seem now to someone to be emotional, unprofessional delirium. But I don’t socialize with such people, all the more so with colleagues, who are worst of all. If I say that this fellow Hirshhorn came from nowhere, from himself, from God, they all the same will begin to ask under whom he studied, from whom he took this or that. But he did not study under anyone, he took something himself. He knew for sure what he needed, how it will sound this way or another, because he had an inner vision a thousand times greater than what came out of him. As Paganini said, you have to feel more, then others will also feel it. If what comes out of a man is a million times greater than this man, and only he and no one else can do it, then he is a medium. Do you understand? I could not have said that at age 14-15. Now I can. Back then I only felt this intuitively. Such an impact – it simply sweeps things in its path. As Paganini said about one violinist – it was Lafont – "He plays well, but he does not surprise." Philippe had things which surprised, amazed you. Such a powerful impact! I have never had such a feeling from any other instrumentalist, even the greatest: Schering, Milstein...

Possibly Philippe had moments when he was aware of all this. He was not a fool, and therefore he could say something to someone. He was a good man, not for sale. People did not really protect him and he was not sparing with himself. You cannot lift such a burden at any time on command. And he should not have been on the assembly line – 20 concerts of Tchaikovsky in a row and the recordings of 1974, which I consider unsuccessful – precisely for this reason. Here you have a contradiction, I believe, that even drove him, this life in the material world. Philippe broke the material envelope, the covering, and when he smashed it, that was something. But this did not always happen, of course. Sometimes there was a break through, sometimes not. You cannot do this on command, however professional you are. And he had enough professionalism for a hundred. You have tobe brilliantly strong. He had to live in good conditions, to look after his health – like Gould, who gave 200 concerts in his entire life. That’s something. Some give as many in a single year. That was what Hirshhorn needed, like Gould. But that is not possible; there are obligations. It’s another matter when you have nothing to safeguard, when you are cold as stone. Then you can give three hundred concerts a year. But for Hirshhorn music was not something humdrum. He didn’t even get pleasure from it. He was always driving himself. Either one thing or another did not work out. A musician without compromise and a great master. And like any great man, he did not always know what to expect of himself, in one or another direction. Something could happen simply on an even place...

I recall how once in the West we met – once again, by chance – and I asked: "Philippe, so where are the recordings?" And he said that he was still not ready for recordings. Still not ready! Can you imagine? That’s how he thought about himself.

Dmitry Potemin (at the left) and Philippe Hirshhorn during a festival in Finland, early 1990-s


You say "therefore he could say something to someone." What and to whom?

Well, a lot. Once, for example, he lamented to Vaiman, already after the Queen Elisabeth Competition: "So I am already a kind of well-known person, but still poor and homeless". In fact, he lived in the dormitory on Zenitchikov Street. Vaiman told him: "Well, Philippe, and I am a professor, but I also don’t have everything I’d like." And the answer: "But you didn’t win the first prize!"

Or one more case, when Khachaturyan came to Leningrad and the school thought up performing his work "Ode to Joy." Yes, an ode to joy, neither more nor less. For one hundred violins and a chorus. Of course, Hirshhorn was supposed to be among the one hundred violinists and, of course, he did not come to a single rehearsal, because he was busy practicing from twelve noon until three in the morning. He was summoned to the director’s office and asked why he ignored the rehearsals of "Ode to Joy.[transl: Radosti]." Philippe’s reply was: "Forgive me, I mispronounced it, the "Ode to rubbish [transl: Gadosti]?" But this wasn’t dissidence on principle, more on the everyday level. He had no time or interest for that. And on humdrum topics he did not like very much to converse. A very unusual man. I even remember, and you may not believe it, that if we remained together in the room by chance, then I felt the presence of some additional force, a third party. Still more, I felt this even when he was not in the room. Once I went into the class. I knew that he was practicing there and there was an open, empty violin case. Some scores and a rather expensive watch lay next to it. But Philippe was not there… Why do I remember this? I don’t know. But this is not about the watch, though I later asked him: "Do you just leave a watch lying about?" He just waved his hand dismissively.

It would be an understatement to say that he was very close to me, like family, whom I remember every day. But more and moreyou come to some kind of metaphysical conclusions, when you think about that. Metaphysics. It is not so simple that people like Philippe appear among us.