The Russian Paganini
Published: September 2, 2005 (Issue # 1101)
An emigre Russian violinist is reviving rarely-performed works by an undeservedly forgotten 18th-century Russian composer and violinist, who has been referred to as the “Russian Paganini.”
This week, the Hermitage Music Academy relased a CD by Anastasia Khitruk playing works by Ivan Khandoshkin. The disc features three rarely-performed sonatas and the first-ever recording of several duets.
The name of Ivan Khandoshkin is obscure not only to foreign audiences but also to the Russian public. The Russian Paganini remains in oblivion. Names that typically come to mind when people are asked about 18th century music in Russia, are more likely to be Dmitry Bortnyansky and Maxim Berezovsky, whose music is performed by local choirs and orchestras with some regularity.
Some Russian ensembles, including, for instance, Musica Antiqua Russica, feature Khandoshkin in their repertoire but the performances are sporadic and the remaining impression is too limited to provide a consistent picture.
Not only has most of Khandoshkin’s musical legacy not survived, very little is known about the life and background of the musician, while the available material on the subject sometimes tells contradicting stories.
Born in 1746, in St. Petersburg, Ivan revealed his musical talent at a very early age. He entered the royal court orchestra at 13, and four years later at just 17 he became one of the leading musical tutors at the Russian Academy of Arts.
Today, a young and talented Russian-born violinist is the driving force behind the plan to bring some of Khandoshkin’s music back to the local stage. The Hermitage is the most symbolic and appropriate place for Khandoshkin’s return: the virtouso was known to be one of Tsar Peter III favourite chamber musicians.
After the death of Peter, who was a great admirer of musical theater and the arts, his wife Catherine the Great gave Khandoshkin a place at the court theater after 1762. The circumstances surrounding his dismissal nearly two decades later, remain obscure. Khandoshkin died in March 1804 in St. Petersburg, in poverty, of a heart attack.
Khandoshkin is reported to have produced over 100 works for solo violin, mainly arrangements of Russian folk songs, but almost no scores have survived until the present day.
Khitruk’s interest in Khandoshkin was sparked by sheer accident. The musician came across the score of one of Khandoshkin’s sonatas while waiting for a friend and whiling away the time by perusing old scores.
“The work — it was Khandoshkin’s First Sonata — caught my attention, and I thought the work seemed most interesting and challenging in its complexity of harmonies,” she said. The violinist soon rehearsed the sonata and performed it.
Audiences gave the work a very warm welcome, which inspired the violinist to begin serious archive digging and a profound study of Khandoshkin. After a year’s investigation, she came up with three sonatas and several sets of duets. After one of her performances, Khitruk was approached by Sergei Yevtushenko, director of the Hermitage Music Academy and asked to record a CD.
“This musician was well ahead of his time,” Khitruk said of Khandoshkin, comparing the Russian virtuoso with 18th century Italian composer and violinist Pietro Antonio Locatelli, whose works are believed to have influenced and to have been precursors to Niccolo Paganini in the following century.
“Too many people still believe the Soviet myth that the history of Russian music starts with Mikhail Glinka in the 19th century,” she said. Khitruk’s new recording will certainly help the effort to break that stereotype.
“Ivan Khandoshkin: Virtuoso Music at the Court of Catherine the Great” by Anastasia Khitruk is released on Hermitage Music Collections and is available at the Hermitage Museum shop. www.hermitagemuseum.org/shop