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10 January 2024

Music in a time of war

The Ukrainian pianist Sasha Grynyuk and the Russian violinist Yuri Zhislin on playing together during the conflict.

By Edward Docx

Sasha Grynyuk and Yuri Zhislin are two of the best musicians I’ve ever seen perform live. I’ve been getting to know them – partly because they play piano trios, with which I’m obsessed; and partly because Grynyuk is originally from Ukraine and Zhislin is originally from Russia and, just before the war began, they happened to be playing as a duo. They’ve been giving concerts together ever since.

Grynyuk was born in Kyiv in the 1980s, from where he was briefly evacuated after Chernobyl. His parents lived in the capital until 24 February 2022, the day the Russians invaded. Immediately, they set off for Poland. With Ukraine under heavy aerial attack, it was a fraught and dangerous journey. They are lucky now, he says, to be in London. His wife’s parents still live in Odesa. Grynyuk has won numerous international competitions and prizes – not least the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition and the Guildhall School of Music’s most prestigious award, the Gold Medal, previously won by such artists as Jacqueline du Pré and Bryn Terfel.

Zhislin is a word-class violinist. His father was born in Leningrad in 1945 and was one of the great Russian violinists of all time – a winner of the Paganini Competition. Zhislin was born in Moscow in the 1970s. The family moved to Europe and Zhislin won the BBC’s Radio 2 Young Musician prize in 1993. He is now a professor of violin and viola at the Royal College of Music in London. He has played at all the major concert venues in the world and his discography is extensive. In the classical music community, he has a reputation for being warm, open, inventive, a leader of musicians.

[See also: Ezra Pound’s experiments in sound]

Grynyuk and Zhislin have been teaching me about piano trios. I say “teaching” but I don’t mean teaching to play. I mean teaching in the sense of expanding my understanding and reminding me of what it is that classical music explores: the inner life of human beings; complex human sensibilities; reciprocity, for example, despair, courage, joy, defiance. The reason I love the piano trio – piano, cello, violin – is because I think this form is where you best get to hear the raw musical imagination of the great composers (as scored for the three great instruments) without the contagion and blur of the orchestra. The DNA of the composer seems unusually tangible in the form – intimate, revealed, approachable – and I enjoy coming (or returning) to a composer’s work through this, more private, back door.

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The two piano trios we’ve been talking about are Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2 in E-flat major, Op 100, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50. For those who don’t know them well, they’re both masterworks with solid claims to being among the greatest piano trios ever written. And both are concerned with the quiddity of things – life and death. Opus 100 is one of the last pieces Franz Schubert wrote and he knew he was fatally ill when he did so. (He died – possibly of syphilis – less than a year later in 1828, aged 31.) The other is less well known, but also an immense piece: Tchaikovsky’s only foray into a form that he did not relish. This trio is subtitled À la mémoire d’un grand artiste – a dedication to Nikolai Rubinstein, his mentor, who had died earlier in 1881, the year he began work on it.

Unusually, Tchaikovsky’s piece is in two movements, the second of which is structured into 12 variations and a coda. So intense is the work – the score is marked “Risoluto e con fuoco”(resolute and with fire) – that the music sometimes feels like it is getting away from the composer, the musicians, the audience. Everything flies – ecstasy and triumph, euphoria, the last moments of life, of creativity, up and up and up and up – before everything vanishes… the ground shifts beneath our feet… and in the most chilling and unexpected harmonic turn, we fall through a trapdoor and find ourselves amid a desolate funeral march – the coda. Now Tchaikovsky marks in the score “Piangendo!”(crying). There’s no more playfulness or evasion. The bells have become funeral bells. The piano fades into darkness.

We’ve been talking about the experience of listening to the trios as opposed to the experience playing them. And the interesting thing is that the Tchaikovsky sounds (and looks) way harder to play than the Schubert. I’ve been asking why.

The answer will surprise the non-musician. Because, Grynyuk explains, the Schubert is less orchestral. Because there are fewer notes in the Schubert. Because the musical lines are created from only two or three or four notes, so a single note badly played or wrongly emphasised will stand out and immediately distemper the line. Because the Schubert is more diaphanous. The Tchaikovsky, by contrast, is much fuller. You can easily imagine: here would go the wind, here the strings, here the cymbals. The musicians know where to push and where to hold back.

This is related to the other interesting stuff we have been talking about: the emotional geometry of human beings; specifically, the complex inner life of composers and the way they seek to communicate sophisticated human sensibility through musicians to the audience.

In the Tchaikovsky, Grynyuk explains, the emotion is substantial – clear feelings, resoundingly felt – and you can be sure-footed even as you race through the piece: this bit slays, this bit soothes, this is the sadness, this the exuberance, now the dance, next the whirlwind and here is your mortality and – yep – this bell tolls for thee.

In the Schubert, by contrast, the emotional language is subtle and uncertain and ever-changing – there’s some kind of paradox going on between tragedy and comedy. A line feels one way then turns out to be the other. Delight deliquesces into despair.

The music can’t quite be stamped, labelled, sent. You may know what notes to play but you’re never quite sure how to play them. And yet, the piece threatens collapse if the interpretive skill fails for even a bar. The musicians are thus constantly required to find the right way to understand this language and pass it on to the listener. In other words – and despite appearances – for the master musician the Schubert is much harder to play than the Tchaikovsky.

In this way – the evocation of different sensibilities – classical music is borderless. It moves back and forth between human beings, offering the opportunity to spend time with our shared consciousness, our shared lives of thought and feeling. In this way, too, music offers communion; and thus a kind of hope.

When Grynyuk talks of Zhislin he says: “He never squeezes the sound from the violin – pressing down with his fingers – but always lets the sound sing out of the violin. It’s a beautiful sound, where the right hand moves faster, where the velocity speed of the bow is much more. It’s the sound of very free playing, romantic and warm and full of love for the music – velvety, and never rough.”

When Zhislin talks of Grynyuk, he says: “Sasha is one of those brilliant musicians who also listens – which cannot be taken for granted. We can trust one another – that we are always listening as well as playing – it’s reciprocal.

“We get on as friends. We make music together. And the music is a collaboration – a way of praying that the nightmare will end.”  

[See also: The women classical music forgot]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously