Moussia 25: 1922, Moussia meets Alexander Borovsky, a great Russian pianist

Alexander Borovsky, about 1920. Photo from the personal collection of Moussia

We have already become acquainted with Alexander Borovsky in article 2. Born in Mitau, Latvia in 1889, he received his first piano lessons when he was 7 years old from his mother, Vera Vilhelmovna Vengerova (1862-1926), an accomplished pianist. He made astonishing progress but his mother, concerned that he should not grow up as a wunderkind, made sure that school lessons had first priority. In 1907, when he was eighteen years old, the family moved to St. Petersburg. There, he entered the Law Faculty and the Conservatoire at the same time, having earned full scholarships at both Institutions by having graduated from Libau High School with a Gold Medal. He completed both career studies, because his mother thought he should have one more arrow in his professional quiver; in case a musical career did not work out, he could  become a lawyer, like his father.

At the Conservatoire, his teacher was the famous Annette Essipova and one of his contempories was Sergei Prokofiev. They became friends and Prokofiev often visited the Borovsky family in whose apartment Madame Borovsky had her private piano school. There, Borovsky heard Prokofiev play his  early compositions like Visions Fugitives as they were in the process of being created. Prokofiev was full of praise for Borovsky and remained so for many years thereafter, when both men toured the concert halls of the world. Having already earned an Honorable Mention as a young pupil, in the  International 1910 Anton Rubinstein 5-yearly Piano Competition, Borovsky graduated in 1912 with a Gold Medal and the Anton Rubinstein Prize, which consisted of a grand piano, the same prize which Prokoviev would win the year thereafter as pianist-composer, with his First Piano Concerto.

Borovsky started his concert career in Russia, touring the immense country with enthusiasm. Then, the First World War broke out and just as he was worrying about how this might affect his career and the possibilities for travel abroad, he was appointed Professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, giving Master Classes to advanced pupils. Concurrently, he continued to give recitals. He was able to continue these activities during and after the Revolution, but by 1920, during the Civil War, he felt that it would be better to leave Russia. Without a clear plan how this could be done, he arranged with the Director of the Moscow Conservatoire to go on an inspection tour to music schools in regions in the South of Russia which had come under Red Army control. Once there, he managed to cross into Georgia, an independent state since the Revolution but already under threat to be invaded by the Red Army. In Tiflis, he gave concerts together with the Russian cellist Evsei Belousov, whom he had met during his journey. Together, they managed to leave Russia and by way of Constantinople and Italy, they arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1921, after having given various concerts on the way.

Borovsky and Belousov started to give recitals in Paris in April 1921. These were a success and they were soon  invited to play in  London, Berlin and Vienna. The real breakthrough for Borovsky came when the  Russian conductor Sergei Koussevitzky invited him to participate in the “Trois Festivals de Musique Russe” in Paris. On April 29, 1921, he played the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky and on May 6, 1921 the piano scores of Le Poème du Feu (Promethée) of Scriabin. Reviews were enthusiastic and this resulted in many invitations to give recitals and concerts.

In 1921, Russian émigré colonies around the world were settling in as it became clear that the Civil War was being won by the Red Army. Paris became a favorite place for Russians, due to its relative closeness to Russia as compared with, for example, the United States.

Many well-to-do and/or cultured Russians who had settled temporarily in the United States and were still hopeful of a return to their country (like Moussia and Vladimir Baranovsky) gravitated to Paris, if only because they spoke French much better than they did English. One such family, Boris and Fatma Samoilenko,  close friends of Prokofiev, moved to Paris from New York. Fatma was one of two sisters Hanum, the other one being Tamara, who would soon become the heart and soul of the Russian party circuit in Paris (Fatma and her husband Boris figure prominently in the Prokofiev Diaries). Borovsky was sometimes invited in these circles, which he thoroughly enjoyed although he kept his distance; he was intent on his piano practice and in getting his career off the ground. He writes in his Memoirs that one day in 1922, he ran into “a Russian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rumanov, whom I remembered having met on the first day of the Bolshevik victory in Moscow in the sleeping car for Petrograd. The man was a journalist and a very clever man…”. He continues:

“One morning this couple called me on the phone to invite me over for lunch to meet a beautiful young Russian lady from California, who had just recently seen my old friend, Prokofiev. When I arrived, I discovered that my friends had not exaggerated.  She really was a very beautiful woman. Her name was Maria Viktorovna.  She told me she had heard me play the Tchaikovsky Concerto in St. Petersburg under Alexander Siloti, that she had spent a lot of time with Prokofiev recently, and that she had just attended the premiere of his opera, “The Love of Three Oranges,” by Mary Garden’s company, in Chicago.” 

(to be continued)

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