Stalin's Favorite Pianist

Note: While much if not all of this story is true, some details originate in Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. This book, while possibly the primary resource on the composer, is also the subject of a 25-year debate over its authenticity. Undeterred, Volkov's new book, Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator, comes out next month.

Maria Yudina was a powerful woman for the unlikeliest of reasons: She was Joseph Stalin's favorite pianist. Yudina took every advantage of her unusual position, often scolding Stalin with, "You can't do that!" At composer union conferences where the establishment's representatives were condemning Shostakovich, Yudina eloquently defended the composer. Instead of ordering her disappearance, Stalin was patient and tolerant.

While listening to the radio one day, Stalin heard Yudina's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. The next night he called the station and requested that the record be sent to him so he could hear it at his leisure. The radio station employee, in no position to do otherwise, responded that the record would be sent right over. There was a problem though: What Stalin had heard wasn't a record, it was a broadcast of a live performance. There was nothing to send over.

Panic set in immediately. With one of the most ruthless rulers in history waiting for his record, there was little reason to expect patience. Something had to be done. So a flurry of messages went out, musicians were roused from their beds, a conductor was found, and Maria Yudina summoned. Late that night, they all arrived at the recording studio, sleepy and nervous, but ready to make a record. Or some of them were.

Soon after starting, the conductor succumbed to the pressure and had to stop. He broke down. Again, the messages flew out, another conductor was woken up and called to the studio. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, the recording started again. But success was not to be had just yet: another conductor, another nervous wreck. A third conductor arrived and the orchestra picked up their instruments once more. A little before dawn, they made it through the piece, the recording made. As quickly as possible, the music was sent to Stalin, who to everyone's everlasting relief couldn't tell the difference between the two performances.

On March 5, 1953, Stalin died in his bed. Spinning on his record player was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, performed by Maria Yudina.

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