Think of the Askenazys, Mravinskys, Petrenkos, Kondrashins, Luganskys, Gergievs of this world.
Do you think they find a hidden voice in Russian classical music that no other musician can hear?
Many experts would dismiss any suggestion that nationality has any relevance whatever when it comes to performing music but then you think of all those Russian musicians and orchestras and you have to think again. There is no question in my view that the Russians seem to have a direct line to the composer’s soul (especially apparent in Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich) that no other nationality seems to possess.
At the same time, I also wonder if the St Petersburg band and other Russian outfits get fed up with playing their compatriots’ music when on tour. Wouldn’t they like to let rip with a little Mahler, or Strauss, or Elgar, occasionally?
If you talk to Russian musicians there is a real sense of respect when they tell you that “I studied with X who was the favourite student of Oistrakh” and this kind of thing. One often gets the impression of how seriously they regarded the handing down of the flame in terms of teaching – obviously with a strong emphasis on Russian music – and this did impart a tradition in performing their native composers.
Alhough in earlier times, the results of this lineage could be surprising. From the early professionalisation of music-making with the founding of the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, and that in Moscow three years later, Russian instrumental pedagogy was for several decades heavily staffed by foreigners (especially in St Petersburg, somewhat less so in Moscow). One of these was the Jewish-Hungarian, Leopold Auer, himself a student of Joseph Joachim. Now Auer, whilst heavily influenced by Joachim’s teaching, modified the so-called “Joachim grip”, with the arm very close to the body, somewhat locked in (which was taught quite extensively in the Berlin Musikhochschule, which Joachim founded). Both Auer and Joachim inveighed vociferously against the use of continuous vibrato. Yet three of Auer’s most important students – Mischa Elman, Efram Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz – played a very significant role in establishing this practice towards its becoming the norm in the 1920s and 1930s. Within two generations of teachers we have gone from Joachim to Heifetz – a pretty major transformation in my opinion. Auer has been characterised as the most important teacher of the violin in Russia prior to the Soviet era (I know more about Russian pedagogy between 1862 and 1917 than afterwards, but certainly various people have suggested there was a very significant shift after the later date with the new types of politicisation of musical life), yet his own style of playing and teaching seems very far from those that developed at a later date.
Similarly the Polish Theodor Leschetizky, a student of Czerny and a teacher at St Petersburg from the very opening of the Conservatory (then later in Vienna), could teach Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Mark Hambourg, Ignacy Paderewski and Artur Schnabel – all extremely different players.
Now I do believe one can talk of schools of playing, especially centered around particular teaching institutions (certain ways of playing have been predominantly taught in London, Paris, Vienna, St Petersburg, Moscow, New York, etc.) and also the aesthetic norms and demands of various localised musical scenes (certain types of player or styles of playing tend to be favoured depending upon who is awarding prizes, running concert series, radio stations, etc.). And the same for composition. But I’m not so convinced about how much the lineage counts with the best players, many of whom often move in a quite different direction to their teachers.