Home Global News Anatol Ugorski, long-hidden talent of classical piano, dies at 80

Anatol Ugorski, long-hidden talent of classical piano, dies at 80

Anatol Ugorski, long-hidden talent of classical piano, dies at 80

When pianist Anatol Ugorski left the Soviet Union in 1990, he had no piano to play at the refugee camp where he landed in East Berlin. He had not even enough money for subway fare to travel from the camp to the home of a friend who had offered him the use of her Steinway.

Once, he entered a digital piano store wearing a long rubber coat that seemed to swallow his slight frame, his hair in its characteristic disheveled state. The staff, taking him for a homeless person, moved to usher him out. But then Mr. Ugorski sat down at one of their instruments and, to their awe, began to play “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a piano suite by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Mr. Ugorski did not stop until he had reached the end of the 10th and final movement.

That performance, such as it was, marked the beginning of a musical career that had once seemed foreclosed. Mr. Ugorski, who died Sept. 5 at age 80, was approaching 50 when he arrived in the soon-to-be reunited Germany. He had spent decades relegated — metaphorically and at times physically — to the hinterlands of the Soviet Union by authorities who viewed him as suspect for his embrace of Western music of the avant-garde.

In Germany, where Mr. Ugorski was discovered and placed under contract with Deutsche Grammophon, he revealed himself to the broader classical music world as an artist of extraordinary talent.

He was at home not only in the music of modern composers such as Stravinsky, Scriabin, Messiaen, Schoenberg and Berg but also in the more classical works of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Even critics who objected to his sometimes eccentric style agreed that his recordings deserved to be heard, especially because he had been all but silenced for so long.

“My style comes from myself,” Mr. Ugorski once told the London Evening Standard, “and developed on its own in my solitude.”

Anatolii Zalmanovich Ugorskii was born on Sept. 28, 1942, to a Jewish family in the Siberian city of Rubtsovsk, where they had been evacuated during the Siege of Leningrad.

He nearly starved during World War II. After the war, his family returned to Leningrad — modern-day St. Petersburg — where he grew up. His father was an engineer. His mother, a sales clerk and usher at a cinema, sneaked Mr. Ugorski and his friends into the movies, a rare pleasure for them amid the suffering of the postwar years.

Mr. Ugorski was the fourth of five children and lived during his youth in a communal apartment, with an entire family to each room and a shared kitchen and bathroom. He had no access to musical instruments other than a xylophone.

His mother, hearing him play and sing, divined his musical potential and took him at age 6 to audition at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he was admitted to a school for musically gifted children. He was assigned to play the piano, he later recounted, because the shape of his hands was deemed suited to the instrument.

Mr. Ugorski’s future seemed assured by 1967, when he won third prize at the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest. (First prize went to the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu.) But his career was essentially ended the same year when he attended a concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra during its visit to the Soviet Union.

The performance featured composer Pierre Boulez conducting a selection of modernist works not in line with Soviet cultural dictates of the time. Mr. Ugorski, who was seen applauding with excessive enthusiasm, was thereafter banned from giving performances of any prominence. He worked as an accompanist for a youth choir and played in recitals organized for workers, on at least one occasion receiving payment in the form of cheese.

Eventually he received a teaching post at the conservatory, but his opportunities remained scarce.

Antisemitic threats against his then-teenage daughter, Dina Ugorskaja, who became an accomplished pianist in her own right, prompted Mr. Ugorski to emigrate in the waning days of the Soviet Union. He chose to settle in Germany, he told a friend, because he loved the works of Beethoven.

The conductor Thomas Sanderling, who was born in the Soviet Union and knew Mr. Ugorski from their school days, introduced him to Irene Dische, a Berlin-based writer who began helping him — first by finding clothing and other necessities for his family and then by introducing him to Deutsche Grammophon.

During his first recording session with the label, Mr. Ugorski played Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations. “After a few hours, they started calling people to come to the piano studio — ‘you’ve got to listen to this guy play,’” Dische recalled in an interview. Soon, she said, the studio was “jammed with people.”

Mr. Ugorski’s complete recordings with Deutsche Grammophon — including works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Messiaen — were released in 2018. He also toured internationally.

Mr. Ugorski had an unconventional style that did not please all critics. He experimented with musical tempos, playing works at speeds much faster or much slower than they were traditionally performed.

He rejected stasis, once remarking that “the greatest danger is to turn into one’s own recordings.” To make a piece feel new to him, he might play it wearing a jacket that covered his hands, or sit at the piano in a rocking chair rather than on a bench.

“As a pianist, Ugorski [homed] in on the essence of a work as he, uninfluenced by any performing tradition, perceived it — and then he exhumed exactly that essence out of the notes,” music critic Jens F. Laurson wrote in a tribute after Mr. Ugorski’s death. “To what extent this approach succeeded in unveiling hitherto hidden musical details always depended very much on the listener’s subjective response. Those who responded to it never forgot a performance of his.”

Mr. Ugorski died at a hospital in the German town of Lemgo, near his home in Detmold. He had cancer, according to his son-in-law, Ilja Kukuj.

Mr. Ugorski’s first marriage, to pianist Gabriella Talrose, ended in divorce. His wife of more than four decades, musicologist Maja Elik, died in 2012. Their daughter, Dina, died in 2019.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Ugorski married pianist Minze Kim, his partner of 10 years. Besides his wife, of Detmold, survivors include a sister and a grandchild.

When Mr. Ugorski rose to fame in Germany, he captured the imagination of Western listeners, many of whom found the pathos of his music heightened by his deprivation in the Soviet Union during what might have been the prime of his career.

“Do not make me sound a victim,” Mr. Ugorski cautioned them. “I know artists and scientists who had it much worse.”

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