Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile by Fiona Maddocks - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

Symphonic Accumulations

Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile

By

Faber & Faber 384pp £25
 

Because the hands of great pianists have tough work to do, their fingers tend to be unalluringly thick and stubby with muscle. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s were an exception, much admired for their slender elegance. Nor did Rachmaninoff cultivate the idiosyncrasies of the virtuoso – the keyboard histrionics and electrified hair of a Liszt or a Paderewski. Reviewers would often compare this ascetic, buzz-cut figure to an undertaker, a convict or a Buddha, so reserved and inscrutable was his platform manner.

Fiona Maddocks, the music critic for The Observer, has peeled away this austere image. She offers here an entertaining and humanising portrait of a shy, stiff, kindly giant of a man – a gangling six foot three – who channelled his emotions into his music. Maddocks has eschewed a cradle-to-grave approach. By presenting a series of snapshots from different angles, she avoids the deadening chronicling of the successive concert tours that were a feature of Rachmaninoff’s life.

Her focus is on the twenty-five years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a catastrophe that pushed him into exile, along with some two million of his compatriots. Fortunately for him, his international reputation as a composer and pianist was already well established and he would never want

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