An interview with Sofja Gülbadamova, concert pianist

Sofja Gülbadamova was born in Moscow where she began her musical studies. She continued her academic piano courses at the Musikhochschule in Lübeck, Germany, in the class of the exceptional American pianist James Tocco. She went on to study at the Paris Conservatory and at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, winning prizes at numerous prestigious international piano competitions. She has performed extensively throughout western Europe and the U.S., as well as in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Russia, and Moldavia. Maestra Gülbadamova has made it her personal mission to bring public attention to the works of Ernst von Dohnányi, to elevate his status as a composer to the lofty position it occupied in former times.

Of special note is a superb live recording of his Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra (conductor Dmitri Jurowski), which was released by the label HD-klassik in November 2017. In February 2018 a double CD featuring Dohnányi's major solo works for piano was issued by the label Capriccio, which then released in 2020 a CD with the two piano concerti, and in 2022, a compilation of assorted other concerto pieces which featured her performance of Dohnányi's "Variations on a Nursery Song."

Q: Your video on YouTube with Ariane Matiakh, on your Dohnányi project, is very interesting. Tell us about this project.

Sofja Gülbadamova: This video is a footage of our recording of the two piano concertos by Ernst von Dohnányi. The recording was released on April 3rd, 2020 — just on Brahms' death anniversary which seems very symbolic, more on that subject later.

It is unnecessary to say how much it meant to me to be able to record these great concertos that I profoundly love! They represent a huge leap from the young Dohnányi, who strikes us with his depth and masterfulness, to the nearly 70 years old composer who lived through two world wars since then and just lost two of his sons, his homeland, his position as an artist of a worldwide fame, in one word - everything. This Concerto is extremely difficult to play, especially in concert, because it leaves you no place to breathe, almost literally. The achingly beautiful second movement is, for me, like a burnt out land, no plants left alive, just smoke from the ashes all over the field, a pale-yellow sun behind the clouds, albeit even this ruin inside and outside it feels like a blessing for oneself having stayed alive. That's what I feel when playing it.

As for the First Piano Concerto (which is dedicated to Eugen d'Albert, who helped put the finishing touches on the young pianist before Dohnányi spread his wings and went flying out into the life of a performer)— I have my own theory. It has no musicological approval whatsoever but I feel so strongly about it that I would dare to share it here.

The Concerto was started in summer 1897, just a few months after Brahms' death. As you know, Dohnányi owed a great deal to Brahms for having been so enthusiastic about his 1st piano quintet that a concert in Vienna was arranged, a publisher found, and the quote, “I couldn't have written it better myself” is attributed to Brahms, who like nobody else was known to be fairly severe on his colleagues. It goes without saying that Brahms was an idol for young Dohnányi, so the importance of their personal encounter could hardly be overestimated. Moreover, Dohnányi was sent to Brahms' funeral to represent the Academy of Music (the later Liszt Academy). It might sound like a speculation, but my feeling is that this magnificent work of almost 50 minutes duration (which strongly reminds us of the length of Brahms' own piano concertos) is a requiem for the late composer who meant so much to Dohnányi. It is written in E minor — just like Brahms' 4th Symphony, a tonality which is often attributed to music associated with grief and death (Mozart E minor sonata KV 304, for example). The dimensions of this piano concerto, its style, the profoundly melancholic mood with passionate outbursts and astounding mastery of instrumentation, along with a mind-blowing command of a pianism that never is a tool for displaying pure virtuosity, but always serves to express the deepest and finest feelings that leave me shaken to the core each and every time I play it — all this leads us on a direct path to Brahms. Once again, it's my very personal feeling only, but since it hasn't altered for years and I am still as convinced of it as I was when it first came to my mind, I think there might be some truth to it.

Q: Why do you think that Dohnányi's works are so neglected today? Do you think that the slander campaign that was waged against him after WWII is a major factor? Do you see any parallel with the case of Wilhelm Furtwängler?

Sofja Gülbadamova: The false allegations are certainly the first and foremost reason why Dohnányi's music disappeared from the concert halls for so many years. We shouldn't forget that despite his name being cleared of all accusations relatively quickly, thanks to his former student Edward Kilényi's intervention and help, he was still on the black list into the seventies. A whole generation grew up without his music, without knowing who he was. It's all the more absurd, because while in his heyday, which lasted for decades, he was regarded as one of the most important musicians of his time! Even after having proved his innocence, Dohnányi had to cope for years with these hideous rumors and their aftermath. Just imagine how trying and desperate it must have been for a 70 years old musician of Dohnányi's magnitude to restart everything practically at zero, while holding responsibility for his family as well. It was about surviving in first place, let alone his feelings and thoughts on the matter.

While this lie that destroyed Dohnányi's reputation was already damaging enough, one should add the reluctance of many concert organizers today to program music of the composers they, and presumably their audience, don't know. Very often the hardest part is to persuade them to take a risk and offer something that is not written by Chopin or Beethoven (don't get me wrong, please - I love dearly both of them, but there is so much more out there!)

As for Furtwängler… There certainly are some parallels, even though I don't think that I would be entitled to any opinion here. I am convinced that we cannot judge these people, since we never know how we would have behaved ourselves in the given situation. However, the parallel that spontaneously came to my mind concerning Furtwängler was rather that with Eugen d'Albert, whose drama seemed to be that he regarded himself as a composer his whole life long, while not being enough appreciated as such, whereas the whole world celebrated him as an outstanding pianist (one of Brahms' favorites). That same frustration applies to Furtwängler, in the combination composer/conductor.

Be it as it may, I think the parallel stops already in the post-war years because the comeback of Furtwängler, however much he has been blamed, happened comparatively quickly and in a much greater significance than it ever did with Dohnányi. Notwithstanding, my deep conviction is that there is a certain time spiral for everything, and one cannot make it move faster than its own rhythm prescribes. Maybe it was necessary to wait until our time to revive Dohnányi's music and to give it all the appreciation it deserves. I do think that our time is in need of exactly the values that Dohnányi's music represents, of his warmth, his passion and faithfulness to his principles. One can learn so much from him and his life as well as from his extraordinary strength, to rise like a phoenix from the ashes at such an advanced age in a foreign country, finding himself in a seemingly hopeless situation. Maybe the moment has come to finally acknowledge who he really is and what a great legacy he left.

Q: There were influential institutions such as the Frankfurt School and the Congress for Cultural Freedom that were promoting modernism in the arts, often to the exclusion of classical forms. Do you you think this may have played a role in the diminished attention to Dohnányi's works?

Sofja Gülbadamova: I don't think they had the power to do so. Speaking about parallels: it was common to criticize Rachmaninov for being so retrograde in his musical style, not enough future-forward, too traditional — the same odd old song one hears about Dohnányi's music as well. But, at the end of the day, where are those critics and where is Rachmaninov's music?.. (see the quote at the end of the next answer)

Q: Ernst von Dohnányi criticized modernism in musical composition, saying, "Because the composers of 'modern music' have overthrown every rule, this kind of music gives ample opportunity for untalented composers in displaying their ideas.” According to Dohnányi biographer Veronika Kusz, he saw the twentieth century as one of "decadence." Do you agree? What are your thoughts generally on this subject?

Sofja Gülbadamova: There is another story told in Veronika Kusz's wonderful book, A Wayfaring Stranger, when Christoph von Dohnányi, the famous conductor and Ernst von Dohnányi's grandson who was studying with him in Florida, left a composition on the table, only to find it next day with his grandfather's remark: “Why in such an ugly way when you could do it beautifully?”

I wouldn't dare to dig too deeply into this subject since I think that only composers themselves have the true moral right — and also the practical knowledge — to criticize and argue about it. I only can say that as a performing musician, one is offered various paths and the choices one makes, represented in one's repertoire, already give an adequate impression of the taste and preferences of the performer. It doesn't mean one is not open for new ideas and other sound worlds, quite on the contrary, but for me it's essential that music has a strong impact on me both on the emotional and intellectual levels. As soon as it's just mathematics being left, without any room for the soul, I can't connect with it. To conclude with Dohnányi's own words, “Music must be free, a composer must write from inspiration. (…) You see, if you are just trying to do something because it hasn't been done before — if that's the reason for doing it — the result will naturally not live long.”

Q: You are the artistic director of the International Brahms Festival in Mürzzuschlag, Austria. May we know more about that?

Sofja Gülbadamova: Of course! It's a wonderful chamber music festival that has existed for over 30 years, that has been founded along with the Brahms Museum which is situated at the very house where Johannes Brahms had spent his summers in 1884 and 1885, having composed his 4th Symphony there. Elisabeth and Ronald Fuchs are the “parents” of this enchanting and highly interesting museum that is filled with love and admiration for the composer. The museum alone is worth a visit to Mürzzuschlag. Brahmsfest, as it is called in German, has been shaped and led by Claus-Christian Schuster, a renowned Austrian pianist of an extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge, so these footprints are not only inspiring but also somewhat daunting and bearing lots of responsibility. It makes me very happy, though, that the audience is so open and responsive, since we are bringing lots of music which is as far from mainstream as it gets, and I hope we'll be able to win new audience in the coming years.

Q: Brahms' composition student, Gustav Jenner, argued against Wagner's ideology and defended forms such as the fugue and the sonata, praising the sonata as a form "that spurns all that is extra-musical and arose purely from the essence of music, the outcome of musically logical thinking and feeling." Wagner seemed to want music simply as a Hollywood sound-track, to manipulate the emotions. Is that a fair characterization, in your opinion? What are your thoughts on this controversy?

Sofja Gülbadamova: I am not to be found wherever any ideology starts. But I don't think it would be fair to reduce Wagner to a “sound-track”, certainly not. One may love him or not — and by the way, Brahms was full of admiration for Wagner, possessed his scores and didn't allow anyone to attack Wagner's music in his presence — but not admitting his importance would be simply ignorant. There is a beautiful proverb, to my knowledge a Chinese one: “May all flowers bloom” — aren't we the lucky ones, having this unbelievable richness and variety in classical music where everybody can just find what feels right for themselves? Why fighting something that is different and not just let it be? It's known that many composers were not particularly complimentary towards each other — well, it only proves that despite their genius, they were also humans only, with their faults and flaws. In a way it is somewhat reassuring.

For more on Ms. Gülbadamova, see her website:

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