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November 20, 2009

Blast from the Past: cellist Gregor Piatigorsky

Gregor Piatigorsky, at 6'6'', was among the tallest of the musical giants from the good old days. The cellist's artistry towered impressively, too. He had superb taste, a formidabe technique and a warm personality that disarmed people onstage and off.

Piatigorsky, who died in 1976, left a mark on the cello world comparable to that left by Heifetz on the violin world. (I wonder how many of yesterday's musical greats would easily find a manager, let alone a record deal and major concert bookings, if they were facing today's classical scene, with its weakness for the fluffed and buffed, the mediocre-but-marketable.)

For this week's blast from the past, I thought we could use a reminder of Piatigorsky genuine, refined, richly communicative musicianship. Here's sample of him playing Bach, Chopin and Faure:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:19 AM | | Comments (5)


"(I wonder how many of yesterday's musical greats would easily find a manager, let alone a record deal and major concert bookings, if they were facing today's classical scene, with its weakness for the fluffed and buffed, the mediocre-but-marketable.)" All too true Tim; all too true. Cortot, Richter, Schnabel, Kreisler, Menuhin - none of these could win a competition today (often the launching pad for a career) because they eschewed technical "perfection" in the quest for communicative music-making. And a pre-diet Maria Callas would probably have ended up as a Wagnerian soprano, laughed out of auditions for Lucia, Puritani, Sonnambula, Ana Bolena (perhaps delaying the entire bel canto revival), as well as Tosca and Traviata. Today for Puritani we get the very attractive, technically inadequate Elvira of Ana Netrebko broadcast all over the world and preserved for posterity via DVD. Sad.

Thanks for depressing me even more. TIM

Thanks for these glimpses into the past. Any truth to the story that Piatigorsky escaped from communist Poland by swimming or wading across a river while holding his cello over his head?

Hmmmm. Sounds fishy to me. TIM

As a professional cellist and grandson of Gregor Piatigorsky, I am thrilled to see this article in the news. His artistry was extraordinary. His musical and human wisdom enriched the lives of so many. I continue to be inspired by his writings, recordings, films and his many students around the world.

Thanks for commenting, Evan. What a terrific legacy you share -- and are doing so much to honor. TIM

Wikipedia does have a story about Piatigosrky escaping not from Poland, but from the Soviet Union (Poland was not communist until after WW2.) As with anything from Wikipedia, things need to be double-checked.

Actually, you have to double-check Claytonpedia, too. For some reason, I've been thinking that Piatigorsky was Polish, not Russian. The encyclopedias say that he was born in Ukraine, by the way, and that he fled from the Soviet Union. Somewhere years ago I read the story of his escape by swimming a river with his cello over his head presented as fact. Later, another source claimed that this popular story was apocryphal. Not to eclipse other things here: It's wonderful to see a comment from Piatigorsky's own grandson!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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