I've just been to Moscow for the first time. Since I've been mesmerised by Russian literature and music for as long as I can remember, it's taken me a while to get there. Yet much as I love the culture that I know, nothing, but nothing, had prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the real thing.
These guys do nothing by halves.
Moscow is a giant onion, one that makes London - less than half its size - seem like mere wild garlic. This onion is still growing. You can peel back layer after layer, prising them apart with some difficulty: Tsarist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, everything superimposed and juxtaposed or simply posing - but as fast as you slice, so the new skins slide into being. Everywhere you notice building, restoration, cranes, scaffolding. It's a city that never ceases the process of becoming.
I've been paying house-calls to a few personal heroes. While tourists queue to worship the hoard of silver, gold and Fabergé-jewelled treasures at the Kremlin's Armoury [note to self: Google how this little lot survived 1917?], I found real treasure in the love with which the modest composer and writer museums are cared for - I saw Scriabin's, Chekhov's, Pushkin's, Bulgakov's (the haunted flat itself), but there are many more, and almost every one with a little theatre or concert room attached. The Bakhrushin Theatre Museum is a gem, filled with its eponymous collector's assemblage of memorabilia including Chaliapin's costume for Prince Igor, some rare portraits and photos of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, and much more...
Here's Chekhov's house on the Sadovaya Ring, his home between 1886 and 1890:
Today, though, his view over the road looks like this:
Scriabin's home is particularly excellent. The apartment, in a dark turning off Old Arbat Street, feels as if he and his family could walk in at any moment. There's even a little machine on which he would mix coloured lights, furnished with still-functioning bulbs. Here is his Bechstein:
Casts of his hands - and his top hat and tails, preserved in a glass case - prove that he was remarkably tiny in stature. Just picture him strolling up the street with his student chum, Sergei Rachmaninov...
Hours after visiting Scriabin's home, I encountered some of his music. Peter Donohoe played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Moscow Philharmonic at the Great Hall of the Conservatoire (pictured at the top of this post, the conservatoire with its statue of Tchaikovsky) - an amazing performance in which Peter brought such a range of power and colour to the solo part that it was like having a second orchestra on stage. As encore he added Scriabin's Fifth Sonata - and, listening, to compare that little ring of coloured lights with the breathtaking wildfire of the composer's imagination is quite a leap. Moscow may seem vast; but the inward vision of some of its artists was treble that size.
Peter, as it happens, was my cover star for the very first issue of my old Classical Piano Magazine, some 21 years ago (!) and is somewhat renowned for beating the Russians at their own game - notably the Tchaikovsky Competition at which he shot to fame in 1982. If you don't yet know his blog, please have a read. This British piano lion completely "gets" Russian music and the style of the Russian school, with all the necessary perspective, limitless expressive range and oversized scale of concept. He's a brilliant raconteur, too, and has much to say about his tours of Russia in the Soviet era. It was snowing just before his concerto the other day and the wind chill was around -6. Hah, said Peter, that's nothing. He once did a concert in Siberia in -58. And the hall was full. That was just the beginning...
The Conservatoire (pictured, top, with its statue of Tchaikovsky) has been restored, and beautifully so; the process is, of course, ongoing. The Great Hall feels bizarrely intimate given its generous seating capacity, and its acoustic is warm, vibrant and vivid - among the best I've encountered. The soaring staircases and foyers are painted delicate shell shades and portraits of composers adorn the walls. I had some fun with my limited knowledge of Cyrillic, working out how to spell HAYDN; it comes out as something resembling GAIDEYNI.
If you love literature and music you can't help enjoying the fact that the biggest statues around Moscow are of writers and composers; many streets, squares and Metro stations are named after them. This towering man is Mayakovsky, in the centre of a large square outside the Tchaikovsky Hall:
And here is the entrance to the apartment building housing Bulgakov's "odd flat" from The Master and Margarita:
In five days I have scarcely made so much as a first incision into the surface of this metropolis, one that can, conversely, swallow you up at a gulp. Only one solution: go back, soon.
I had a list six pages long of must-sees, and I saw about one third of one page. I've come home, though, with a still longer list of must-reads and must-hears. We read Chekhov here...but not Ostrovsky? We know about Glinka...but not Verstovsky? (Who he? - Ed. contemporary of Glinka's, vital Russian opera pioneer, but here name pretty much unspoken and music unplayed...). We know something about Stanislavsky - but we maybe didn't know that Chekhov's nephew took another branch of the Method to America with him and taught it to some of Hollywood's leading actors. And when do we ever stumble over a volume of Mayakovsky in sunny London?
Here is a memorial to Emil Gilels on the apartment block where he lived:
Hugely grateful to our wonderful Russian friends Alex and Erika, Sasha, and the British Council people who threw a very lively party in Café Tchaikovsky after a certain concert the other night, for making us feel so welcome and at ease in what might otherwise have been a daunting environment...and for taking us to some super restaurants - one Uzbek, another Georgian, and the Coffee Mania outlet beside the Moscow Conservatoire - plus the cafés of the Shokolade chain, where I sampled something delicious called sea buckthorn, packed full of vitamin C and jolly nice with honey and lemon.
You see what I mean?