Memories - Marina Akimova

Marina Akimova – a viola-player, a violinist, a teacher, an archive researcher at the theme of russian music life at the beginning of the XXth century.

The invisible burden of perfection (an essay of 2011)

… Filmed in black and white, a certain sketchiness of the movements, typical of shooting at 24 frames a second. All of this is why in 2011 you feel that history is unfolding before you. Standing in front of the seated orchestra (bald spots, eyeglasses, noses in the scores), he plays the violin. From time to time, annoyingly blocked out by the conductor, we see a slim and very photogenic young man. He is playing the Paganini concerto, and plays it in such a way that you want to move the conductor with his broad back off the screen: don’t get in the way! It’s like fireworks. You cannot take your eyes off of him. Yes, yes, your eyes and not just your ears – this is one of the most hypnotizing spectacles that the author of these lines has seen in his life. And yet, nothing special is happening on the screen: a man is moving a bow across the strings of his instrument. Later a writer would record the following about this violinist: “While he played, Hirshhorn was an UFO – a magnetic field formed around him.”
The piece is coming to an end. Even before the last chord, in violation of all propriety, one hears the collective sigh of an electrified audience which, when the conductor cuts off, passes into general, uncontrollable madness. Dozens of flashes go off, causing the field of the frame to go blank for a couple of seconds. The violinist blinks, blinded by the flash photography. He steps back, places his hand on the lectern, as if seeking support, and instead of bowing makes an ineffable movement of the head, like a diffident adolescent who knows that everyone is looking at him. It is clear that he is profoundly moved.

The time – 1967. The place – Brussels, at the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, the main professional contest of contemporary times. Victory here, in those years, when the world was not yet so overfilled with prize winners as today – was nearly the same as being accorded the title of Mr. World among violinists. And Philippe Hirshhorn won this victory. A student of the Leningrad Conservatory. At age twenty-one.

In accordance with longstanding tradition, the competition consists of three rounds in which you have to play music of practically all styles, from Bach to Schnittke, but it was precisely with the Paganini concerto that Hirshhorn “took” by acclamation the Palais des Beaux Arts on Rue Ravenstein, not far from the Place Royale in Brussels. And – let us dare say it – he immortalized his name (one would hope not only in violinists’ circles).

What is talent? It is difficult to define, simpler to describe. Talent is when you are sitting reading a book, someone starts to play and you raise your head, as if someone called you by name. It is what acts on the listener going past his brain. In the case of Hirshhorn, this effect reaches a kind of supernatural force. When he plays, you cannot avoid listening. The Paganini concerto produces such an impression that you simply become transfixed, grow down into the earth. When THIS is going on in front of you, it seems that up to now you never heard how one really should play the violin and that all the other violinists (and the sensation is precisely this: he – versus all the others) simply don’t exist. And yet it is rumored that Hirshhorn himself twenty years later avoided speaking with students about this performance, brushed it aside, saying there were too many wrong notes.

The most interesting thing is that this was not coquetry, he was right. There really were a noticeable number of false notes. But you begin to hear them only after the fifteenth time, when you have gotten used to it, have calmed down and sobered up a bit, and even then these false notes surprisingly do not upset the hearing too much. Even the opposite is true, it is pleasant that this live person stands before you and not some virtuoso machine without nerves. For the discovery of the several shortcomings in this unsurpassed performance we should say ‘thank you’ to the very existence of the sound recordings. If the recording did not exist, this playing would remain in the memory of eye-witnesses as something blinding, and then this memory would be passed along to their successors as a legend about something fabulous, about unimaginable perfection.

But what would come next? Frames of the triumphal final chords of Paganini – this is for the whole world, it is what from that evening was surely shown in the news. But there are also other frames… Someone, whether it was Belgian television, or someone else, unnamed – also filmed behind the stage curtain the first seconds after Hirshhorn left the stage. The documentary film The Winners use of this footage.

To glimpse and record such deeply personal moments, when raw emotions are exposed, is generally quite tactless, but nowadays competitors, as a rule, are defenseless against the organizers. And so here we have Hirshhorn with his violin leaving the stage. In the tradition of “serious” concert halls, the door in front of him is thrown open as if by itself (and in its frame we see how on the stage the conductor is continuing to take his bows). Those who created the documentary film displayed an amazing feeling for what they were doing – they kept the video recording but took away the sound.

At the start we still hear distant applause – as if from the other bank of a river. But the applause dies down and there remains only a strange “silent movie” rumble and some sparse, incomprehensible rustling, a kind of gurgling, as if from below water. Hirshhorn screens himself from the flashes with his palm, is going somewhere, sits down, gets up, sits down again, doesn’t seem to find the right place for himself. On his face we see the face of a person who has truly just lived through moments of stardom, the expression of a peculiar confusion and some kind of strong inner pain. In panic, he pushes away the microphone offered to him, and the journalist remains standing over him with a courteous-foolish grin. Hirshhorn is a twenty-year old boy; he hides his face in his hands. If you were to take out a freeze-frame and show it to somebody who does not know what is going on, it will surely seem to him that he has in front of him not the winner but a loser.

Thirty years later, one month before his death, Hirshhorn commented not on this shocking scene but on something similar: a photograph in which he is in the midst of a joyful crowd taken, very likely, just a few minutes after the announcement of the winners. Next to him is Gidon Kremer, who carried off third place – tall, thin, in glasses which take half his face. Kremer also is receiving congratulations; he is chatting with someone. Young Hirshhorn (the critics later found in his features something Byronesque) is looking to one side, involved with himself. He is profoundly alone. Perhaps for just a second, but nevertheless… No happiness. “A tragedy,” a mature Hirshhorn will tell us. He knows that nothing good lies ahead. He knows. This child.

He died shortly after the film was shot. In 1996, some fifteen years ago. There are in this world a great many people who knew him personally. The generation born at the end of the 1940s is still full of life. That very same Gidon Kremer, Misha Maisky, Vladimir Spivakov, Viktor Tretiakov – they are all coevals of Hirshhorn. Despite this, his life is surrounded by a strange secretiveness and some kind of fog. Almost no one has any precise knowledge about him. There are only bullet points in his “service list”: he lived here (Brussels), worked here (he taught in the Utrecht Conservatory). No biography has yet been written apart from the brief entries in Wikipedia. And yet, as with any other outstanding personality, around him there circulate a multitude of rumors.

He emigrated to the West from his native Riga in 1973. This is known with complete accuracy. But beyond that the gossip begins. They say that Karajan very much wanted to record with him the Tchaikowsky concerto and invited him many times, but he refused. They even say that it was because his views of music did not coincide with Karajan’s. They say that when he arrived in Israel, knowing he wanted to become a guest soloist with the Israeli Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta proposed to him that he first be auditioned – this, seven years after he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition. They also say that Isaac Stern swore that Hirschhorn will never play in New York (and Stern, the “patented” world celebrity enjoyed entirely enough influence to arrange this) – because Philippe did not rush to accept the patronage Stern offered him.

“He did not accept compromises,” the composer Kisin says about Hirshhorn in The Winners. “An organic inability to observe politesse,” says Leonid Girshovich, writer, fellow student of Hirshhorn in the Leningrad Specialized Music School, the same person who described him as an UFO. Girshovich also has another interesting thought: “… As I already said, Hirshhorn should have been born as a wandering knight of the violin: duchesses would relate to him differently than ministry rats. And not only ministry rats.” We can now add – the authorities of the world musical industry also could have related to him differently. They could have, but, obviously, they couldn’t.

All of this would fit perfectly within the banal “artist against the system” scenario, but here there is also something else. According to Girshovich, who heard him at concerts, soon after the Elisabeth Competition Hirshhorn began to “play markedly worse.” “Let’s suppose that someone of completely stunning beauty noticeably grew plainer. Nothing in him has changed: the features, the behavior – all remain as before, but whereas they formerly constituted the main charm of this man, now they have an unpleasant effect on the eyes. In Hirshhorn’s playing, when I heard him again – already in Dzintaru, everything that formerly induced admiration now was bothersome. Precisely the same qualities.”

And the issue is not at all related to the ill effects of stardom (synonym for loss of a feeling of reality). There is a well-known story about how Hirshhorn stopped and walked off the stage when at a concert in the Bolshoy Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic he suddenly got stuck in the passage with thirds in the first Capriccio of Paganini. This was an unheard of act – among musicians it is not acceptable to stop playing, whatever happens. A large part of the audience will not notice anything and the others, who notice it, will forgive you. But Hirshhorn would not pretend that nothing happened.

Did he really play much worse? We now can judge only by recordings. They exist – not many, but they do exist. There are also disks, but few have seen them and the recordings of one of the best violinists of all times exist, as it were, ‘under water’: circulating from hand to hand, like apocrypha, or they are downloaded. A large part of them is amazing, despite their being often pirated versions (with the corresponding hissing and crackling that unexpectedly places them on a level with the legendary recordings of the ‘ancients’ done at the dawn of the sound recording era). Sometimes it is noticeable on them that something is really happening, but this does not fit the description of Girshovich. The sudden inexplicable blunders which occur with Hirshhorn produce the terrible impression of tortured and violent grimaces on a lovely face. As if his hands lost their control for a second.

“I think he had problems with his nerves,” Misha Maisky explains. “He was closer to perfection than any of us. He could peer into its eyes. Surely this closeness is difficult to withstand. When your car can do 400 km per hour, then with 350 you already feel that something is going not properly”…

In the short biographical sketches, we read that Hirshhorn left his concert career early due to health problems. Was this really just nerves? Or was it the first signs of the brain cancer that killed him? Questions, questions… But you have to include the remark, as becomes clear, that he in no way lost his magical power over music and over his listeners. And if this means “he began to play worse,” then it is not clear what it means “to play better.”

In the Sibelius concerto (live, 1974) he was not stuck on a single passage of the thirds (and nothing wavered in the expression of the musical person, as if the passage were written not in double stops but singles: who wants to imagine what this is, just try quickly and at length to alternate the pairs of fingers – 2-4, 3-5, and not lose coordination while doing this). More than that, this recording is an example of inexplicable musical sorcery of the highest grade. Hirshhorn here in the finale is like a horseman in the saddle, sitting proudly, and nonchalantly releasing thunderbolts (in his playing we always heard emotional sense, a humanistic gesture – in those places where others are only playing sixteenth notes). Then, all of a sudden he gets ready for combat, or flies to the heavens along gigantic imaginary steps while the orchestra diligently is busy doing its thing – meowing, mumbling, whining (the finale of the Sibelius concerto is openly pagan). This is all brilliant, but somehow they are separate from one another, one following the other. Then, suddenly, at a certain moment, as if a magic wand were waved, everything blends into one and we unexpectedly discover that before us there is a circle and he is in the middle of it. It has been controlled either by the shaman of the tribe or by a boy-prankster: he quietly whistles away, hands in his pockets, as if he has nothing to do with it, while the dance chain controlled by him continues to move, already as if on its own, under the force of hypnosis. A bit more and we are drawn in from our place in front of the monitor to his world beyond the looking glass. Isn’t this the reason we listen to music? Isn’t this how discoverers of new worlds act? A man “of the greatest musical endowment, capable of combining into one the souls of the instrument, of the performer and of the listeners,” as Spivakov said about him. As Girshovich writes, honestly giving Hirshhorn his due: “I am as far from him as I am from the moon.”

We can tally up what we have now fifteen years after his death.

Thirty-six videos on youtube. This is very good. It shows that something has budged: just a year ago it was nice that there were ten. The English language comments express mainly the swooning feelings of their authors.

Recordings scattered here and there in the internet, on file-exchange and torrent sites.

Several dozen students who bless his memory, led by the beauty and clever girl Janine Jansen. She not only plays the violin, but she has recorded several interviews in which she speaks a lot about him – though this is in Dutch.

Two or three communities in social networks, though they attract few visitors.

The Dutch film The Winners, about which we have already spoken. As a critic in The New York Times wrote about this film: “Archival footage allows us to see Hirshhorn as a handsome, dashing youth… when he added Byronesque fire to the appearance of a classical virtuoso.”

The coherent writings of Girshovich, who is nearly the sole source of information about his personality. For this we must express our gratitude to Girshovich.

All of this comes from abroad. Here in Russia, the situation can be described in one word: oblivion. From the Petersburg Conservatory, for example, even on the eve of its 150th anniversary, when officials love to highlight results, no signals have been reported which allow us to think that the institution remembers its student who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition – and this in the context of the never-ending competition between Moscow and Petersburg.

The tombstone in the Uccle cemetery in Belgium is a marble plaque on which everything has been collected in several lines – the beauty and the pain, and the Neva fogs, and the taste of Art Nouveau – the last flowering of Romanticism, and the Brussels rain in the runners of ivy …

But before our eyes there does not cease to persist the face of a boy, tortured by an incomprehensible pain, who has just left the stage. He took the secret of this pain with him to the grave. What was it? A farewell to perfection? Regrets about its impossibility?
“Let us rise and pray.”