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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

Memories. The Enormous One - an encounter with genius

Moscow, the Presnya district, a one-storey house behind the Zoological Gardens,
some time in 1911/12

'The doorbell rang. I opened the door. A tall ... man, stern-looking and wearing dark clothes, stood on the doorstep...

'He came in, took off his hat, then his kid gloves, pulling at each finger separately, dropped his gloves into the hat, wiped his feet on the doormat, although it was dry outdoors, took off his coat and hung it up. There was a kind of stony solemnity about his movements, and his face was stony too... This cold, unsmiling man in his high stand-up collar did not smile at me, he kept his lips firmly pressed; he was not the kind of person you could start a conversation with. A clean-shaven face, not much hair, a very high forehead. He stood there like an island, then followed me to the study, with his head bent ... so tidy ... each of [the many buttons on his jacket] properly done up...

'... suddenly a whole orchestra started playing... Amazing! Father's old piano could never produce those sounds! They rang out, demanding some special truth of their own, they merged in chords more powerful than I had ever heard before. They scattered and merged again, impossibly fast. Like some mysterious current they picked me up and carried me away - everyday objects disappeared and there was nothing left but the music around me and in me... Could this tall man be a magician? Or perhaps he had twenty fingers? ...

'I opened the door a little ... There he was, tall and straight, with his stony face, only his fingers moving, his hands huge, soft and strong. He only had to give the orders, and they could do anything - sing in the sweetest voice, ignite a star or destroy an enemy. Yes, they could do absolutely anything, these miraculous hands! How curious, he was so greyish-yellow, so dry, so angular, but his hands were young and gentle, quite different from the rest of him! He could span nearly two octaves - from C to A - with one hand!

'He played something that sounded like a polka*, my feet started tapping of their own accord, and a smile came to my lips. How hard it was to keep still at the door, when this polka was played! The longer he played it, the more wonderful I felt. The music spread like a hot wave through my whole being...

'... So perhaps he only pretended to be so wooden, not to let people guess how wonderful he was. But when he played there was no hiding it... now softly and sweetly, now as powerfully as enormous bells... the Big, the Enormous One...

'... What power he had, to make our little old piano say so much, say things so important that they could not be expressed in words!

'I sidled up to Papa... "... you won't be angry with me? He plays the piano better, much better than you do. Why...?"

' "Because he is Rachmaninov... Sergei Rachmaninov..." '

- Natalia Satz, Sketches from my Life [1979], translated Sergei Syrovatkin, Moscow 1985


* The newly-finished Polka de VR perhaps (11 March 1911)? Or one of Ilya Satz's incidental numbers for Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre. The Polka from The Life of Man (1907, Andreev)? The Christmas Tree Polka from The Blue Bird (1908, Maeterlinck) - a 'simply enchanting' score he was later to conduct with Koussevitsky's orchestra, 23 November 1912. Ilya (1875-1912), a cellist and student of Taneyev's at the Moscow Conservatoire; was Natalia's young father: AO



Quote Corner

'... all good music is new,
but not vice versa ...'

- Louis Kentner, 'Self Portrait'

from Kentner: A Symposium edited Harold Taylor, London 1987


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