A review of Margaret Bartley's biography
of Russian-American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky,
by Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH
Someone coughed. The chickens on the other side of the flimsy stockade wall squawked. Gregor sank lower, dropping his head and rounding his shoulders, no longer caring about the mud. If he were caught, the Commissar would order him shot, dirty clothes and all.
The thrilling opening of M Bartley's biography of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky opens with possibly the most nerve-racking single episode of a notably nerve-racking early life. Here Piatigorsky (the 'Grisha' of the title) is attempting to escape to the West while touring with the Berlin Philharmonic. To do so he was obliged to ford a river holding his instrument over his head, survive any number of near-shooting experiences, jump onto a passing train, and survive screeds of boys-only style adventures.
Before this, and in flashback, we are acquainted with his furious alienation from his father, his playing in whorehouses and nightclubs, his playing violin in touring operas, his hitch-hiking along the Volga, not to mention his becoming penniless, frozen and left for dead on the streets. Brief interludes of winning, against all odds, the principal cello job in the Bolshoi (at age 15!) and playing (in his string quartet) for Lenin, who interrogated Piatigorsky personally, are overshadowed by a sense of constant struggle: against the authorities, anti-Semitism, indifference, intimidation -- even fate.
At lowest ebb, PIatigorsky was obliged to pawn his father's watch and eat cat food from his landlady's pet. She it was who later had him arrested for debt, and imprisoned, though upon his release (in the up-and-down style of his entire life) Piatigorsky fell into company with starry local musicians, who co-opted him to play chamber music. It was through their good offices that he auditioned for Wilhelm Furtwängler, who offered him the principal cello seat of the Berlin Philharmonic on the spot. After which the talent-spotting Merovitch (who already represented Nathan Milstein and Horowitz) hijacked his life and sent him all over the world.
From this point on the book loses some of its impetus: we are no longer concerned with Piatigorsky's survival but about the extent of his success. Bruising encounters with Mengelberg in Carnegie Hall, fascinating discussions about the rise of Hitler with Furtwängler and a rather tedious exposition of his great attraction and subsequent marriage to Jacqueline de Rothschild aside, the final third of the book is memorable principally for Piatigorsky (and family's) escape from anti-semitism and the octopus-like tentacles of the Third Reich. Scarcely surprising that security, both financial and personal, always remained an issue for Piatigorsky, or that he continued to feverishly worry for his parents, siblings and fellow Jews left behind in Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, and the Soviet Union. The reader is made vividly conscious of what it was to be without papers, passport and homeland in the madness of World War II. It feels completely right, therefore, that the book, rather than going on to list the honours, recordings and Californian beaches which were to comprise Piatigorsky's later life, ends with his assumption of American citizenship in 1942. He was to live 34 years longer, enjoying ever-increasing glory and fame, but upon turning the last page, one feels that (at last) he is safe. In a telling episode, Milstein objects, 'Grisha, you worry too much about money. As an artist you should not let thoughts of money fill your head. It will rob you of spontaneity.'
'Have you ever tasted bone soup?' returns Piatigorsky. 'It's all I lived on in 1918. That and the taste of cat. Something I'd rather not taste again.'
The biographer, M Bartley, spoke extensively to Piatigorsky's wife and children, as well as colleagues, students and friends, before essaying this dramatic reconstruction of his life. I have never met Piatigorsky, nor was I fortunate enough to hear him play, but, after reading this book, I feel as though I had. The dialogue may be imperfect, but the resonance of the man is impeccable. Margaret Bartley has made Piatigorsky come vividly and triumphantly alive. Against all odds: Piatigorsky lives!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
To buy Grisha by Margaret Bartley, go to www.otismountainpress.com
Copyright © 13 May 2005
Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK
A biography of Russian/American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky
by Margaret Bartley
Otis Mountain Press, New York, 2004
ISBN 0-9760023-0-2, soft cover, 392 pages,
18 black and white photos