Dina Yoffe, piano: Chopin and Scriabin, 24 Preludes, Playhouse, April 8, 2016.

Latvian-born pianist Dina Yoffe is hardly a household name, yet she was originally the Silver Medalist in the 1975 Warsaw Chopin Piano Competition, placing just behind the legendary Krystian Zimerman.  Whereas the latter’s career took off explosively, Soviet restrictions on travel literally stopped Yoffe’s career in its tracks, a plight which also afflicted in degree violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Mischa Maisky and many other promising Soviet artists up to 1989.  Now in her 60s, Yoffe remains a very fine pianist with an active recording career, and she offered us something quite unusual in this recital of Chopin and Scriabin.  We heard the 24 Preludes of each, not played separately, but intertwined. As the artist states: “Not long ago, an incredibly interesting and paradoxical idea came to me … Based on the immense contrast [of these two sets of Preludes], I have now unified them and would like to show how great was the influence of Chopin’s work on Scriabin. You will be able to hear incredible similarities and at the same time the great differences in contrasts of tonalities. Both cycles are based on the circle of fifths.”  What is it about Scriabin these days?  Stephen Hough’s very recent Hyperion recording also intertwines Scriabin’s Poèmes with Janacek’s solo piano compositions, both composers allegedly courting the same intense feelings but expressing them in different ways.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with the artist for an hour, and I admit that her endless stories of struggle with the Soviet authorities early on were almost as affecting as her concert. A student of famed professor Vera Gornostayeva at the Moscow Conservatory (who also taught Pogerelich, Egorov, and many others), who herself was a student of Heinrich Neuhaus (who taught Richter and Gilels), she was placed right inside one of the most distinguished musical bastions of the past century. Yoffe recalls the hallowed reverence given to violinist David Oistrakh (her husband Michail Vaiman studied under him and was a prizewinner in both the Long-Thibaud and Wieniawski Violin Competitions in 1977), and the times when she was able to meet Shostakovich, Mravinsky, Svetlanov and many other esteemed artists and conductors of the period. She noted that Sviatoslav Richter was always allowed to travel abroad because he was not deemed to be a political threat: his attitude always indicated that he was ‘above politics’.  She also recalled the last concert that Rostropovich gave in Moscow in 1974: “He was conducting the Moscow Conservatory Students Orchestra, and it is customary to leave a long silence after completing the ‘Pathetique’.  But, at this concert, we knew that the silence meant much more. When the clapping finally started, it was overwhelming and lasted for a full hour.”  Rostropovich immediately defected to the U.S. 

Yoffe received many international invitations after her strong placement in the Chopin Competition, but she was essentially not allowed to take any of them.  Visas would be cancelled at the last moment, and the one trip she was able to make – to Japan – tragically constrained her from then on. She had just had her first child, Daniel, 9 months old (later also to become a concert pianist and record with his mother) and, when she returned, the authorities suggested that “her child might get greater cultural enrichment if her family was relocated to Siberia.” It was only in 1989 that her family could leave Russia (with only suitcases, sans piano) to seek refuge in Israel.  They were given a passport right away, and with the help of Zubin Mehta, Yoffe was able secure the position of Professor at the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv, which she maintained until 1996.  

There is little doubt that the pianist is an authoritative proponent of Chopin, having traversed the complete Chopin piano works three times in concert, played the composer on ‘authentic’ pianos, and performed no less than 5 different versions of the two piano concertos. She served on the jury for the 2015 Warsaw Competition, and recalls with great feeling the experience of talking to Krystian Zimerman again; Zimerman received an honorary degree in last year’s festivities.  On this visit, she was also able to give a very fine masterclass at the University of British Columbia.

Many have said that to play Chopin well (or for that matter, Schubert), a pianist must understand what struggle and sadness really are, to understand what it feels like when fragile hopes simply disappear. With Dina Yoffe, all that experience is right there.  This was, by any standard, communicative, authoritative and direct playing, full of meaning.  While there was scarcely a trace of prettiness, it hit emotions right on without any trace of sentimentality.  The most poignant of the Chopin Preludes had a lovely suspension and line, a grandness and determination, and yielded full emotional penetration.  But then we had all Scriabin’s turbulent passion and dreaminess mixed into this.   I was consistently impressed with the solidity and warmth in Yoffe’s tone, her pristine fingering, and her ability to move from the quietest reveries to the most questing attack.  This was remarkably complete pianism, often casting a spell.

Yoffe’s four most recent recordings are in the enterprising ‘authentic’ series sponsored by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, two of which are with her son Daniel Vaiman.  David Saemann writes in Fanfare of her 2010 Chopin recording, performed on an 1848 Pleyel: “She commands a beautiful sonority, with wide dynamics and an often luminous tone.  Yoffe’s performances are alternately brilliant and subtle. She takes some daringly slow tempos, but never loses sight of the main line. Her rendition of the Fourth Scherzo, which concludes the program, is almost revelatory; it is many-hued and full of interesting details, yet it hangs together marvelously.  I believe it was Rudolf Firkušný who suggested that there should be a prize for less heralded pianists in the prime of their careers, instead of ones just for competing young pianists. Dina Yoffe would be a real contender for it.”

It is not an easy task to play these 48 Preludes intermixed, let alone to play them from memory in this form.  While concertgoers often welcome a combination of Nocturnes, Mazurkas, or Waltzes in a lighter recital, the Chopin Preludes are typically regarded as more self-contained, with their own sacred continuity and balance.  I admit that it was difficult to keep any of this special coherence here – but I still found the experiment illuminating.  One got a different slant on a seemingly common turbulence, yearning and contemplation in both composers.  Placed in such close proximity, the result was sort of a ‘super-work’ with a life of its own, where both composers blend into each other. Scriabin’s early Preludes do bear a clear debt to Chopin, yet I was impressed with how the chromatic variety of the later ones still managed to fit into the grand scheme of things.

It would take many details and examples to explain how this fusion was realized, and there were points where it may have succeeded only questionably.  But the secret overall was that Yoffe worked from a large palette, sometimes playing up the structural similarities between the two composer’s efforts, sometimes their strong differences.  Her natural rubato, rhythmic sense and range of tone colour also provided a way of unifying potentially disparate material.  Sometimes she left the contrast stark; other times she welded things together.  It was her alternation between contrast and integration that made the journey so interesting.  She found the sinewy strength in Scriabin, but did not compromise the whimsical in Chopin.  When Chopin was more direct, she found the mystical musing in Scriabin.

In the first 12 Preludes – the first half of the recital -- I could always distinguish the slight differences in the postures of the two composers: Scriabin often had the more immediate compulsive energy while Chopin exhibited the more restrained and thoughtful countenance.  With the remaining 12, however, I sometimes almost forgot who was who, the blending of these spirits achieved so artfully.  Perhaps one ingredient was that the Chopin playing became bolder. In fact, there were bigger things altogether in the later Preludes: truly macabre feelings suggested in #14, and a greater decisiveness and wildness after that. But what feelings of joy in Chopin’s #17, and what volcanic weight and power as we moved to the end.  Everything built with so much commitment and evident virtuosity, but nothing went overboard in the slightest.  Somehow, it was a bit like sitting through a Bruckner or Mahler symphony or Bach’s ‘48’.  If Mahler said that a symphony must contain ‘everything’, then here the Preludes were saying it all.

Some patrons clearly might have wished to see these works played in their customary way --especially the Chopin,   It is not a fusion I would want to hear every day, but I found this concert much more than an interesting experiment: this was testimony to the full absorption of an artist’s life, breadth and feeling, and that is something we see all too rarely.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016