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Author Vincent Giroud observes that exile and immigration are a crucial part of 20th-century music history. After all, Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stravinsky spent part of their careers away from their native soil. and like Vladimir, his more famous cousin (author of Lolita), Nicolas Nabokov (1903-1978) came to fame after his move to the USA, a transition he made in 1933.

As the author himself observes, to read Giroud’s account feels like going through a Who Was Who in the 20th century. Elliot carter had encouraged the writing of this account. Here we encounter Serge Prokofiev (who was a bad driver, we are told), Virgil Thomson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Oppenheimer, W H Auden, Robert Lowell, Isaiah Berlin, Yehudi Menuhin, Leontyne Price, Willy Brandt and Indira Gandhi, to name but a few. Carter himself had said: ‘Nicolas deserves a large book.’ Here, in 584 pages, is that book.

During his early Russian years, Nabokov saw César Cui with Alexander Glazunov in conversation, heard Jascha Heifetz play, and saw Richard Strauss conduct Also sprach Zarathrustra. Nabokov had a passion for the music of Scriabin, but disliked the music of Reger. Nabokov’s tutor took him to hear Lenin speak, when Nabokov was surprised by the posh diction of the exiled revolutionary leader. By 1920 Berlin was the main centre of Russian emigration, and by 1921 Nabokov was a student at the Berlin Hochschule, where contemporary residents included Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek. He then went to Paris, where his memories included meeting, or at least spotting, Alberto Giacometti, Federico García Lorca, the young Bertolt Brecht, and others. He also remembers encountering James Joyce and even George Gershwin.

In Paris in 1930 he met Wanda Landowska, a masculine looking, cross-eyed and pale woman driving a large, black Citroën, ‘who seems to have inspired in him instant antipathy.’ However, she played Chopin ‘like a man, robustly, and with no attempt towards mannered romanticism.’

Giroud has given us a weighty, fascinating and vivid account of a man who, though much-travelled and well-connected, and despite having been the holder of a series of distinguished teaching posts, seems destined to be forgotten. Today, for the most part Nabokov’s music is unplayed.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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