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Anatol Ugorski, the Great Bewilderer: An Obituary

To say that Anatol Ugorski – born on September 28th, 1942 in Rubtsovsk – was not a favored artist in the Soviet Union is putting it mildly. Something about his character had always seemed to rankle the regime and those in its service. His piano teacher, once Anatol had received his formal training, pretty much left him to his own devices as regarded interpretative personality. (She did insist on Bach.) The talent of this quasi-autodidactic pianist showed early, however, and it couldn’t be quenched entirely: At the Fourth George Enescu International Piano Competition in Bucharest (in a very much Soviet-supervised Romania), he was awarded a Third Prize the year that Radu Lupu won the First. This might have given him a boost, but an early talent for squirreling-out – and performing – the standards of the Western avant-garde gave rise to early suspicions about his political reliability. (Which, in the Soviet Union, was tantamount to being considered morally defective.) He went on to prove the apparatchiks right as best he could by clapping so ostentatiously, demonstratively loud and hard, both hands flat against each other, after a 1967 performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Pierre Boulez, that he was consequently ivory-blocked by the powers-that-be and from then on played to school children in the vast provinces of the Soviet hinterlands or at private soirées.

In this artistic vacuum, Anatol Ugorski was, to paraphrase Haydn, ‘forced to become original’. And “original” may be an understatement. To quote Jed Distler: “If Deutsche Gramophone thought they had the eccentricity market locked up with Ivo Pogorelich, they hadn’t reckoned with… Ugorski.” Two heaping spoons full of crazy (or inspired or insightful or revealing – which is exactly the question that surrounds his artistry) are most notable in the recording that ended up launching his spell with DG, his Diabelli Variations. These recordings made his name after fleeing post-communist Russia to Berlin – but the transition had been anything but smooth.

Broke and homeless, he resided in a refugee camp with his wife and pianist-daughter Dina in eastern Berlin for a while, before eventually upgrading to regular poverty and a tiny flat, living on the outskirts of town for nearly a year and – once again – on the outskirts of his profession. Dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs, Anatol Ugorski certainly made an impression wherever he went. There was something quintessential Soviet, even alien, about him. When he came into a small amount of money, he decided to invest it in a digital piano.

With a dear friend, he set out to go to a store in Berlin that sold such equipment. He wore a black rubber coat, way too large for him, but effectively warming his body and spirits. Looking like something a scarecrow would have glanced at askance, he entered the store, where the German sales staff descended on him at once and tried to shoo him back out of the store. Oblivious and undeterred, Ugorski, made a beeline to the most expensive e-piano model in the store, sat down to the silent gasps of a horrified staff, switched it on, and proceeded to play. Pictures at an Exhibition. The whole way through! It must have been his first performance in the West, technically, and afterwards, the audience, stunned into submission and having successively grown over the course of his playing, burst into loud applause. The episode sounds like an amplified scene that the filmmakers of “Shine”, about David Helfgott, would use a few years later. With the significant difference that, unlike Helfgott, who is a cultural phenomenon but decidedly not a proper pianist, Ugorski could really play!

“Could”, not “can”, because Anatol Ugorski, who passed away earlier today in Berlin> Lemgo, had spent the last four years – since his daughter Dina died of cancer – no longer playing. Instead, he spent his free time listening to music and living – together with his new, young pianist wife.

As a pianist, Ugorski zeroed in on the essence of a work as he, un-influenced by any performing tradition, perceived it – and then he exhumed exactly that essence out of the notes. When he recorded Beethoven’s last piano sonata, he slowed it down to a contemplative crawl – taking as much time for the variation movement alone as the aforementioned Pogorelich took for the whole sonata on his DG recording ten years earlier. The resulting gravitas befits the pathos that Thomas Mann ascribed to this work in his Dr. Faustus. To Ugorski’s great credit, the second movement – while it opens itself to reveal maximum fragrance – does not fall apart like a wilted rose dropping all its petals. His passive-aggressive pianissimos, a specialty of his were a tactical delight as they enforced close listening. Amid his musical finger-pointing with acutely slow tempi and punched-out notes, there was never a sense of any particular school of pianism audible. Just Ugorski for better or, arguably, worse. 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.

His name will live on, not the least in his perfectly uncontroversially great recordings of Scriabin and Messiaen. In the latter’s Catalogue d’oiseaux feathers are ruffled here, beaks beckon and claws clutch: The aviary is filled with trilling, thrilling sounds. Colors abound, as they do in and the piano concerto where he performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, whom Ugorsky had once applauded so much 30 years earlier, that it almost cost him his career.

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