sat 20/07/2024

Fiona Maddocks: Goodbye Russia - Rachmaninoff in Exile review - an affectionate biographical portrait | reviews, news & interviews

Fiona Maddocks: Goodbye Russia - Rachmaninoff in Exile review - an affectionate biographical portrait

Fiona Maddocks: Goodbye Russia - Rachmaninoff in Exile review - an affectionate biographical portrait

The Russian composer’s later years recounted with a delightful eye for walk-ons

Fiona Maddocks, author of 'Goodbye Russia'

In 1917, in the face of the Bolshevik revolution closing in on his country estate, Rachmaninoff fled Russia, never to return. He was 44, at his peak as composer, pianist and conductor, but spent the rest of his life in exile in the US and Switzerland, amassing a fortune and worldwide reputation as the biggest draw in classical music – but never reconciling himself to being separated from his homeland. As he lay dying, he insisted on a Russian nurse, his wife reading Pushkin to him.

The story of Rachmaninoff’s quarter century of exile is well told by Fiona Maddocks in Goodbye Russia, which doesn’t attempt to be an exhaustive, systematic account but a discursive and quirky “set of impressions”, going down endless fascinating sideroads without losing sight of the main narrative. It is scrupulously researched, although Maddocks was prevented by Covid and family illness from travelling to most of the places of interest, apart from the Rachmaninoffs’ purpose-built Art Deco house in Lucerne, which she managed to see while it still retained much of the composer’s imprint.

In those last 26 years, Rachmaninoff (I am using his preferred spelling of his name also used throughout the book) composed only six works. This is partly because of the fading of his compositional energies away from Russia – but also because 1917-1943 was pretty much one long concert tour. The statistics are extraordinary: in those years he played 1,189 concerts, an average of 46 a year, year in year out, right up to his last gig just six weeks before dying of an aggressive cancer. His stamina was extraordinary, as was the wealth he accrued, although he generously supported friends, relatives and colleagues with untold gifts and ‘loans’ that were destined never to be repaid.

Goodbye Russia by Fiona MaddocksMost of his most famous works were written before leaving Russia, but the Paganini Variations and Symphonic Dances emerged in the period of this book. The former was immediately beloved, but not the Dances, or the Fourth Piano Concerto, which has never ascended to the popularity of the second and third. The biggest millstone round Rachmaninoff’s neck was the Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen and which remained his most in-demand piece, to his chagrin and even desperation. It is reckoned he performed it more than 1,400 times – and yet there were still catty reviews on any occasion where he didn’t deign to trot it out.

For all that Rachmaninoff is the main focus of the book – and emerges very well as kindly, generous, sociable, patient and driven (in every sense: he was obsessed with cars) – there is also delight to be found in the tangential figures whose lives intersected with his, and whose stories clearly fascinate Maddocks. There is the singer Nina Koshetz, who may have had an affair with Rachmaninoff, and in the 1940s turned up as a bit part actress in Hollywood – and somehow ended up possessing the autograph score of Symphonic Dances. Or the Polish pianist Josef Hofman, to whom the Third Piano Concerto was dedicated, but which he never played as his hands were too small – who was separately an inventor with 60 patents to his name, including the windscreen wiper. Or the Englishman Paul Dukes, singing coach at the Mariinsky Theatre – but also an MI6 agent, “deft at forgery and self-disguise”. There are at least a dozen such characters sketched in the book, and it is worth reading for these alone.

The book is not just for those with a particular interest in classical music, although it is certainly for them too. It captures a fascinating historical milieu: interwar America, with its culture so shaped by artists of all stripes escaping both Bolshevism and later Nazism. The ebbing and flowing of the attitude to Rachmaninoff’s music within the Soviet Union gives a fascinating insight into the shifting sands of the communist regime. At various times overlooked or even verboten, the last telegram Rachmaninoff ever received was a birthday greeting from the Union of Soviet Composers, which only arrived after he had gone into his final coma.

Famously described by (the 5’3”) Stravinsky as “a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl”, and dissed with splendid bitchiness by the younger upstart Prokofiev, what emerges from this book is Rachmaninoff making the best of the hand he was dealt, sacrificing his composing career to remaking himself as a superstar pianist at a time of international strife, and at the same time remaining beloved by his family and the public. Fiona Maddocks has written an enjoyable perceptive history, and a sympathetic pen-portrait made even more readable by the digressions and diversions that a varied and interesting life threw up in abundance.

@bernardlhughes

His stamina was extraordinary, as was the wealth he accrued, although he generously supported friends, relatives and colleagues

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