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Dina Ugorskaja, A Farewell

Dina Ugorskaja, Photo © Ilja Kukuj

There was a darkness in the playing of pianist Dina Ugorskaja’s, these last few years, that made her interpretations of Schubert, Bach, and Beethoven and the likes fearsomely beautiful, harrowing, even menacing. It is hard not to look back on this now, and think that Dina Ugorskaja – daughter of Anatol Ugorsky – wasn’t impelled to darkness by her struggle with cancer. A struggle she lost on September 17th, succumbing to the illness at her home in Munich at the age of 46.

Dina Ugorskaja was born in then-Leningrad, to an artistic musicologist mother and her quirky pianist father. Anatol was also her principal piano teacher; his own career ivory-blocked by the Soviet powers-that-be as he was deemed a political liability. While he, an Enescu Prize-Winner, was sent to play for school children in the vast industrial Soviet hinterlands or played at private soirées, Dina was somehow allowed to study composition and piano at the Leningrad Conservatory. She gave her concert debut as a pianist and as a composer in Leningrad, but eventually anti-Semitic threats compelled the family to flee to Berlin in 1990. There they lived on the outskirts of town, alive and unthreatened but poor and their talents unrecognized. Eventually friends pushed the re-discovery of Anatol Ugorsky’s genius, resulting in his recording of the Diabelli Variations (and many subsequent ones) for Deutsche Grammophon. Dina, meanwhile, went to study at the conservatory in Detmold from which she graduated and where she subsequently also taught piano.

She slowly, deliberately built her career – scrutinizing her own each and every step along the way. Recitals and recordings long remained insider tips, even as the German doyenne of music critics, Eleonore Büning, raved about her Beethoven as early as 2012… and rightly so. When I recommended colleague Damian Thompson that he give Dina Ugorskaja’s late Beethoven sonatas a listen, he responded by taking the words out of my pen: “Ugorskaya in Op 110 is sensational. Such detail in the darkness because she relies on phenomenal finger-control rather than pedal. And she achieves pathos in the recitative, arioso and fugues without rubato, so there’s a hymn-like quality. Glad she heads for ffff in the repeated chords. And because her left hand is so awesome, we get the full encircling of the world in the final bars. Desert island choice. Thanks!” The release and reception of her Well-Tempered Clavier ( review) in 2016 brought some much deserved wider publicity; that same year the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts made her a professor. And a recital in Munich, where she substituted on short notice, brought more late recognition from astounded critics in the audience.

Fortunately, I had been there ( review). To paraphrase myself: “After presenting tantalizing late Schumann and sublime Scriabin, it was late Franz Schubert – namely the Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960 – that turned out the program’s emotional center. Dina Ugorskaja’s playing in general and in this first movement in particular, evoked and underscored discomfiture among any listeners who think they know the work. No less here: Where there is a little oddity among the notes, it got explored with great curiosity. Where there’s a seldom noticed tension between lines, it got investigated. Amid such details, the pianist derailed Schubert’s sonata from conventions and re-established it as something fearsomely dark... For what it’s worth, the sonata – particularly the spectacularly ominous first movement, felt like the crucifixion of Christ, as interpreted as a Schubert sonata with overtones of Bulgakov. Trills in the far left hand were like salt in the wound – the first time around. Pricks of a needle then; finally like questions of existential importance… In fact, there was something about the recital of Dina Ugorskaja’s that suggested that substituting for the initially scheduled artist was, actually, some dark angel or Nazgûl who had swooped in, parenthetically given their version of Schubert to the crowd, only to take to the air immediately afterwards – off to eat a Hobbit or two.”

Just this April we had still conversed about her partaking in a feature about artists and fashion for the German music magazine Crescendo. She was game and submitted a photo – her hair, post-chemotherapy, cropped short, her eyes wide open and quietly challenging – in which she is the very picture of strength and fragility, humility and determination. It’s a wonderful depiction to remember her by.

Two years ago, as part of reviewing her recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for, I unwittingly wrote what now seems like a fitting epitaph:

There’s ego [in her interpretation], alright… or rather: personality in the act of transcending ego. Dark clouds hover; a flittering sulfurously-silver light illuminates the music, and there is an intensity even among the often slow (though hardly ever relaxed) tempos. What initially came to mind was the title of William Wordsworth’s ode (via Finzi’s tone poem), which I always misremember as “Intimations of Mortality”. (When it is in fact “Intimations of Immortality”.) Even if my impression and the ode itself (rather than the sentiment of my misremembered title) are not directly correlated, the opening stanzas strike me as appropriate to quote:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Indeed, there hath past away a glory from the earth.

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