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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Ihor BLAZHKOV: New music is a continuation of the road paved by classics

Famous Ukrainian conductor marks his 75th anniversary and prepares concerts in Kyiv and Lviv
4 October, 2011 - 00:00
Photo from Ihor BLAZHKOV’s archives

The maestro’s professional interests vary from the research and promotion of the ancient West European music to Ukrainian and world avant-garde of the 20th century. Ihor Blazhkov was born in Kyiv. In 1959 he graduated from the Kyiv Conservatoire (Oleksandr Klimov’s class), then he completed a postgraduate course in Leningrad, where he was taught by Yevgeny Mravinsky. For many years Blazhkov has headed the leading Ukrainian orchestras: the State Symphonic and Kyiv Chamber orchestras, and in 1983 he created at the Union of Composers of Ukraine a unique for that time ensemble, the Perpetuum mobile Chamber Orchestra. Since 2002 Blazhkov has been residing in Potsdam, Germany, but he maintains contacts with his homeland. He has prepared a book of memories about his first wife, music expert Galina Mokreeva, which is soon to be published by Dukh and Litera.

The conductor will mark his anniversary in Ukraine on November 9, by a concert composed of the works by Andrei Volkonsky at the National Philharmonic Society, and on December 4, he will also take part in Lviv’s Festival of Conductors in Commemoration of Mykola Kolessa.

The interview with Den/ The Day gives insight on the most interesting pages of Blazhkov’s creative biography and discusses the basic moments of the profession of a conductor. It has turned out so that this autumn marks 10 years since the transfer of Bachiana music manuscripts to the Berlin Singakademie, Germany. Actually the interview started with Balzhkov’s comment on this unique collection.


Mr. Blazhkov, you were among the first to discover “bookcases with Bach’s music” in the library of the Kyiv Conservatoire. Could you tell now, ten years since the transfer of the archives to the Berlin Singakademie, what has happened to this huge and extremely valuable collection of manuscripts?

“When I was a student, I saw in the conservatoire’s old building that some professors were handed strange music manuscripts. They leaved them over and gave back. I don’t remember anyone trying to work with them: decode, write the score, and perform. Maybe, they were scared away by the ancient manuscript sources, because one needs experience and certain knowledge to work on them.”

But you also did not have needed experience at the time, yet you took up the work.

“It is not quite true. Soon after graduating from the Kyiv Conservatoire I moved to Leningrad. There I became greatly interested with old-age music. Western ensembles came to Leningrad, and my friend Andrei Volkonsky gave harpsichord concerts. Sometimes he brought singer Lydia Davydova with him. For example, for the first time I heard Heinrich Schuetz performed by Davydova and Volkonsky. Then the ensemble of ancient music Madrigal was established. At that time two collectors of gramophone records, who collected only ancient music, were residing in Leningrad: Peshkov and Likhachev. I came to see them. Elderly Peshkov recorded for me the motet Beatus vir by Claudio Monteverdi and oratorio Jephte by Giacomo Carissimi for soloists, choir, and orchestra. I became very interested in these works and performed them later. Another collector, Likhachev, was a person with a very interesting life, a translator of Roman literature (he brilliantly translated Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). He stayed in touch with his colleagues abroad and they sent him gramophone records. Gradually, I got plunged into the libraries’ funds. I studied the unique collections of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society, actually the former Royal Court Library, which used to receive all Western newest editions in its time: the collection of works by Bach, Handel, Schuetz, Rameau, etc. Later I took up the Saltykov-Shchedrin Library. I found in its music department the fantastic music sheet collections of the Yusupov princes, and in the manuscript department I found the fund of Bishop Santini, which included the oratorio Jephte by Carissimi, I prepared it for performance and recorded. Incidentally, a year ago a CD with this recording was released in Moscow. You know, when I came back to Kyiv, such work was not hard for me anymore. Therefore I had a serious preparation before the collection of the Berlin Singakademie.”

What about the texts in all European languages? Did you study languages at the same time or had known them before?

“If I saw a text from the Gospels, I simply took a Lutheran Bible and found a corresponding extract there. I can read German gothic cipher with difficulty, but it turned out that there is also written gothic cipher. And there is no making head or tail of it. In such cases Tamara Kalustian helped me to decode the texts. She had finished a German school in Kyiv, which was located in a two-storeyed building at the corner of Obsevatorna and Vorovskoho streets (later that building housed the secondary school No. 24, where I studied). When the relations between the USSR and Germany got more complicated, the German school was closed and all the teachers were executed.”

Was there free access to the collection of the Berlin Singakademie? Could musicians work with it without hindrance?

“Sure. The problem is that musicians, at large, are inert people. I have often seen printed editions, ancient music masterpieces, specifically baroque: they are lying there and nobody cares.”

So, if the collection was not under strict control of the state and nobody paid any special attention to it, why was it transferred in 1973 from the conservatoire to the Central State Archive-Museum of Literature and Arts?

“When I only started to work on the collection, one of the employees of the library said that these are archival materials, and the conservatoire lacks special conditions to preserve them (dry air, high temperature). Say, they were cracking, breaking, getting too dry, and soon would be ruined. That is why when an archive-museum was founded in Kyiv, the conservatoire initiated that the Germany collection be moved there. Indeed, ideal conditions were created to preserve it in the new place. This was not a ‘classified’ fund. Head of the archives Mykola Kriachok only asked not to tell or write anything about the collection’s whereabouts. They were afraid that our state could simply return the documents to the GDR, with which it had good relations at that time. An autograph of Mozart’s Magic Flute was found in one of Polish monasteries, and the then secretary of Poland’s Communist Party Edward Gierek transferred with much pomp this manuscript to Erich Honecker. Therefore the employees of the archives considered that at some political discord (for example, if a GDR delegation came to Kyiv), they could give the collection of the Singakademie as a present. Incidentally, I insisted on creating a security fund: such precious collection should be copied, as any kind of thing may happen. But at that time there was no money to do so.”


Legends say that the German researchers figured out the whereabouts of the lost archives owing to the programs of your concerts?

“No, it is not true. At that time Ukraine’s archives system was headed by Ruslan Pyrih. He was frequently visited by American Patricia Kennedy Grimstead, quite known among those who work with archives. Probably, on one of her visits to Kyiv, an employee of the archive-museum, out of kindness of his heart, told her about the famous fund No. 441. She shared the information with Christoph Wolf, a well-known German-American expert on Bach, who had been looking for this collection for quite a while. If I’m not mistaken, in 1998, Grimstead, Wolf, and head of the Bach Archives in Leipzig Hans Joachim Schultze came to Kyiv simultaneously. Then Wolf started to make ‘sensational’ announcements about the ‘unbelievable discovery.’”

Who had had time to work on the manuscripts, beside you, before this whole story?

“I inspired the graduate of the theory department of the Kyiv Conservatoire Iryna Terekhova to defend a diploma paper dedicated to symphonies of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. I also copied several works for my friend in Moscow, Professor (Alt) Igor Boguslavsky, and he included them in his concert programs. I copied compositions for flute for Mravinsky’s widow, flutist Aleksandra Vavilina, and she used them in her pedagogical practice.”

When the excitement was stirred by the collection, you were insisting that a center to study it had to be founded in Kyiv. But already in Tatjana Frumkis’s Russian-German film, shot at the collection’s restitution, you say that its place is in Germany. Can you explain?

“At first, I was persistently working through the first version: I made statements, wrote letters to high-ranking officials with an appeal not to give out the collection, but to create an international scholarly center on its base. That would be an ideal version for Kyiv, owing to which the level of Ukrainian musicology would have had risen automatically. However, all kinds of ‘trading’ things started, and I was forbidden to access the collection, after which I changed my standpoint. If Ukraine needed these manuscripts only to make trade on them, let this collection better go to Germany.”

But namely these days the collection has been absolutely closed for researchers, maybe even for good.

“There are two reasons for that. First, the enmity between the two singing academies in Berlin, in Western and Eastern Berlin. They are both legal owners of the collection and both claim the ownership. They don’t want to unite, because the chorus in Eastern Berlin is strong, and Western Berlin’s is weak. A situation to prove this happened to Vivaldi’s opera Montezuma’s Daughter. It was supposed to be performed at a festival in Holland. Everything was ready, the production was well promoted, but some of Berlin’s singing academies appealed to court, and the performance was forbidden.”

Is the collection still being preserved at the Berlin State Library?

“Yes, everything is being preserved at the music department of the Staats Bibliothek zu Berlin, because there are no other premises. In 2000, both singing academies appealed to the government with a request to return to them the pre-war premises, which is now housing the Maxim Gorky Theater. They were refused, because this theater is highly appreciated in Germany, it could not be turned out in the street. Once in this hall with marvelous acoustics Liszt and Paganini performed, and in the 20th century – all the leading virtuosos of the world, including Vladimir Horowitz. They did not want to perform at Berlin’s Philharmonic Society, only in this hall. But after the World War II the premises were rearranged for the theater, the concert hall was destroyed.

“When in 2000 I was invited to perform at the Berlin Philharmonic Society, I was supposed to show namely the works from the Kyiv part of the note collection of the Singakademie. I was conducting the Deutsche Symphonie Or-chester, which is the orchestra of the Berlin, formerly Western Berlin, radio. We had good contacts and we were going to continue our cooperation. But when in 2002 I moved to Germany for good, the administration of the orchestra changed and nobody knows me there anymore. The members of German orchestras re-gularly change, by the way: contracts are signed for mere four years, after which a new casting for the place is announced. I have remembered all of the members of orchestra, with whom I have performed. And now, when watching this orchestra’s concerts on TV, I see totally different faces.”


You are a conductor with a vast experience of working with various ensembles. Are there any universal rules in this profession? Do you have any personal secrets of conducting?

“Conducting, like playing any instrument, is a kind of technique, a method that allows you to performing everything. Yevgeny Mravinsky has always been a model for me. I studied at the post-graduate course under his guidance at the Leningrad Conservatoire. But his rehearsals were the main music academy for me. Mravinsky created wonders at the rehearsals. Like a jeweler, he was making the music fabric of any work perfect. I picked up all methods that I use at the rehearsals from Mravinsky.

“The relationships between the conductor and orchestra are very important. It will be reminded that the symphonic orchestra emerged in the absolutism time. One person in the state was above all the others, who were the performers. This principle was transferred to the symphonic orchestra. A conductor is a tyrant, try not to perform his will. Then the humanity has progressed, everything was moving towards democracy, and the people’s views were changing. But the principle of symphonic orchestra’s work remained unchangeable. Hence all the rebellions of the members of orchestras and discontent with conductors. You should take into account the fact that many musicians have outstripped the conductors in their music development, and in many aspects musicians are more knowledgeable than the one ‘waving’ with the baton. However, the orchestra I founded in 1983, Perpetuum mobile, was a kind of ensemble quite popular in the West. All of the musicians have their main place of work, where they ‘fights’ with their conductor, and come here, first, to play music, and second, to earn some extra money. Such a situation offers no chance for antagonism.”

It turns out that namely conducting the Perpetuum mobile chamber orchestra was the most comfortable for you?

“It has been most comfortable in all my experience as a conductor. The inspector invited musicians, according to the score, we rehearsed and performed. That’s all.”

By what have you remembered the orchestras, which you’ve conducted?

“I have had many interesting concerts and recordings with the orchestra of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society. I performed with them Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film-Scene, a suite from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Nose, fragments from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. And the most complicated memories are connected with the work at Ukraine’s State Orchestra, where I was not only the chief conductor, but also the head of the orchestra. I managed to get the musicians’ salaries doubled, and I was the first to bring the State Orchestra abroad. The USSR was falling apart, nothing was functioning, I had to sign contracts with impresario, and arrange tours. Our first tour was in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela. We were very successful. The musicians got a feeling that they knew everything, could do everything on their own, ‘streams’ emerged, they gathered and intrigued behind my back, in order to dismiss me.”


What inspires you to perform contemporary music pieces?

“Getting delighted with new creations. Conservative repertoire has always been popular. My need as a performer was to broaden it, not by adding one more symphony by Beethoven or Mozart, because there was Wagner and Mahler after Beethoven. They gave way to Schoenberg. That was a natural development. I am sure that new music is continuation of the road paved by the classics.”

What relationships have you had with Kyiv’s leading composers?

“I was taught instrumentation by Borys Liatoshynsky. Everyone was delighted with him, listened up to him, he had an incredible authority. Liatoshynsky was writing something all the time. That was a great personality, an erudite. I remember, Leonid Hrabovsky, who also was a polyglot, wrote a greeting to his 60th anniversary in Latin. Liatoshynsky was very touched. I have conducted many of his works, Grazyna, Fourth symphony, dances from the opera Zakhar Berkut. I performed his Fifth symphony in Leningrad. Later Liatoshynsky’s wife Marharyta involved me in the reproduction of the opera Shchors (the new production was entitled A Military Leader). The new music edition was performed by Ihor Belza, the poetic edition – by Ivan Drach (in the libretto Stalin’s image was substituted by Lenin’s; it was 1970). The attitude to Levko Revutsky was also very good, he was simply a ‘thing in himself.’”

How did you meet Igor Stravinsky?

“When I was working as an assistant of the chief conductor at the State Orchestra, my duties included to learn the new compositions before the performances of the touring orchestras.

Once Gennady Rozhdestvensky was supposed to come with a symphonic poem Roman Festivals by Ottorino Respighi. I knew this work very well and held a preliminary rehearsal. Rozhdestvensky was surprised to hear the wonderful performance of the orchestra, we were introduced to each other and became friends. And when Tikhon Khrennikov (who headed the Union of Composers of the USSR in 1948 through 1991) managed to get in touch with Igor Stravinsky and arranged his tour to the USSR, Rozhdestvensky was requested to rehearse the program, which would be later performed by Stravinsky. Rozhdestvensky was busy and he recommended calling me. I was invited once again during the season and to the summer concerts. After all, my concert on the Kirov Islands, where paid summer concerts took place, was attended by the head of the management of USSR music institutions Aleksandr Kholodilin (formerly Shostakovich’s secretary), who sanctioned that I could be invited to a regular work to the Leningrad Philharmonic Society.”

Was your first wife Galina Mokreeva’s work also connected with Stravinsky?

“Galina Mokreeva was an outstanding music theoretician. In several of her publications in Moscow collections, which were supposed to become a candidate’s paper, she discovered the chord structure of Sacred Spring by Stravinsky. In the west they still make references to her articles. Yurii Tyulin was her supervisor at the post-graduate course. When Skrebkov died, Tyulin was transferred to Moscow to take his place. Galia was his favorite student, he wanted her to finish the last year of the post-graduate course under his guidance in Moscow. But she did not want to leave me and finished her studies in Leningrad.”

Have you ever been to Volyn, where Stravinsky spent much time?

“Last time I went to Ustyluh in November 1962. That was a frontier zone, it was not easy to get there. My friend, a journalist at the newspaper Komsomolsky prapor, took a business trip there. We came to Lutsk, and he went to the oblast committee of the Comsomol, whose employees immediately called to outpost and agreed about everything. We were given a hearty reception and showed everything. There was no museum at the time, everything was in a neglected state. Stravinsky built a house there according to his own design. It had one floor, but an attic as well. In Soviet time the attic was demolished, the walls were leveled, and a second floor was built upon, the result was a two-storeyed ‘box.’ It was used as a dormitory house for the workers of the meadow lands reclamation station, which was drying up the marshes. Layers of dry mud were left from their boots. And absolutely nothing was left from Stravinsky. The Volynian historian Olena Ohnieva inspired the restoration of the Ustyluh house. In what once was Stravinsky’s house a music school was opened, and three rooms were allotted for a museum. Ohnieva communicated with the family of Stravinsky’s niece, late Ksenia Stravinska.

“I have performed several monographic programs based on Stravinsky’s works with the Kyiv Chamber Orchetrsa. In Leningrad I created similar programs, dedicated to his 10th death anniversary (the Soviet premiere of his Requiem took place at the time) and 100th birth anniversary. I have written articles about him, I have published his 65 letters with my commentaries, and have given much strength indeed to the promotion of Stravinsky’s music.”

While promoting the new music, you’ve faced resistance from the system. Today there are no official bans, but the musicians’ repertoire has not become richer. Does not it seem to you that the philharmonic “format,” diktat of the boxing offices and the audience’s tastes have become a great hindrance to living music process?

“You say, format. I don’t know what it is. I have never faced anything of this kind. In the post-Soviet countries the only thing is important for organizing a concert: whether you’ve found a sponsor. The company Vista Vera started to release my CDs. I have many programs, but they are greatly loaded, so they cannot release more than one disc a year. Last year they released the disc with cantata-oratorio works by Vivaldi, Pergolesi, and Carissimi. Stravinsky will go next. I have good recordings of Schostakovich’s works, successful romantic programs: three fragments from Romeo and Yulia by Berlioz, Don Quixote by Strauss (with Rostropovich), Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. I can collect performances for a disc with Prokofiev’s music. I have good recordings of Sylvestrov’s early works, purely avant-garde. These are Spectera, Symphony No. 2, two romances with Tyutchev and Blok’s works, Meditation for cello and chamber orchestra. They will be released by Wergo Company at the Schott Publishers in Mainz, owning Beliaiev Publishing House. They came up with the desire to release Sylvestrov’s works. This disc will contain two annotations, by me and Tatjana Frumkis.”

What are you in for at present moment?

“I wanted to record Prokofiev’s music to the film Guerillas in Ukrainian steppe, using the Ukrainian intonation material. I have looked for this score for a long time. Finally my friend Igor Vishnevetsky found it at the Moscow RDALM. In Kyiv I agreed with the National Radio Orchestra for making a fund recording (five years ago, in 2004, producer of the National Radio Mykola Ammosov organized for me a recording of the first edition of the Symphony No. 3 by Liatoshynsky with a finale). But Guerillas in Ukrainian Steppe is not a score, but a direction. I started to make a score of it, but as soon as I understood that the recording would not take place, I stopped working on it. I will continue as soon as the opportunity to perform it arises.

“I am going to make a collection of memoires about my late friend Andrei Volkonsky. I have gotten in touch with many people. I have offered Yakov Nazatov, who shot the famous film Portrait of the Legendary Pianist about Maria Yudina, to make a documentary about Volkonsky. And he became enthusiastic with the idea. I will start to write the script. I have already decided on the major moments; I just have to fill them in with concrete things. The film will show many photos, certain people will be telling about him, places connected with Volkonsky will be shown. The South Association of Decembrists was founded in Kyiv, opposite to the Verkhovna Rada, there is even a memorable plaque. Serhii and Maria Volkonsky were married at the Savior Church in Berestov near the Kyiv Cave Monastery, where Yurii Dolgoruky is buried. In Kamianets’s Pushkin Museum there is a wonderful portrait painted by Serhii Volkonsky. Volkonsky’s aunt, Olena, resides in Rome. The son of Madrigal’s founder, Peeter Volkonsky resides in Estonia. He has four children. Volkonsky’s cousin, Vera, is a sculptor, she lives in Darmstadt. There are many chances that the film will be very interesting.”

With whom do you communicate in Germany?

“I am friends with former Kyivite, who lives in Berlin, wonderful artist Adolf Osherov. Musicologist Tatjana Frumkis resides in Berlin as well. She is studying Valentyn Sylvestrov’s oeuvre and I help her in her work. Berlin’s Russian television has offered her to make three films on a free topic. She shot one of them about me and the collection of the Berlin Singakademie. The second one, A Trip from Petersburg to Berlin, shows the relations between Petersburg’s royal court and the German capital. The third movie is about the Mendelssohns and Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, who was also quite a talented composer. ”

By Yulia BENTIA, music expert