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Pianist Inna Faliks traces musical odyssey from Soviet Ukraine via Faustian fantasy

A new album by pianist Inna Faliks features world premiere recordings of works by five composers.
Rosalind Wong
Inna Faliks
A new album by pianist Inna Faliks features world premiere recordings of works by five composers.

When Inna Faliks fled the Soviet Union with her family at the age of 10, she carried precious cargo: Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

The subversive fantasy recasts the tale of Faust's bargain with the devil under the lens of censorship. The text so profoundly marked the Ukrainian-born pianist that it serves as the touchstone of her latest album, Manuscripts Don't Burn, which features world premiere recordings by five composers.

"There is something very romantic about the idea that I was a dissident even then carrying this book with me," Faliks told NPR's Michel Martin as she recounted her family's journey to Vienna and Rome before landing in Chicago. "It's got vampires and flying witches and usually like boring and kind of useful idiot administrators that are getting punished by these forces of nature. And I just found all of that to be completely fascinating and engrossing."

Strumming and tapping the strings

In some of the newly commissioned works, Faliks speaks lines from the novel or mimics some of the characters, giving them a new life in the listener's ear.

Faliks at times strums the piano strings wildly "as if I were a cat with claws" in "Manuscripts Don't Burn" by recent Curtis Institute of Music graduate Maya Miro Johnson. "And that actually invokes the sound of fire, maybe crackling in the fireplace. So that's the manuscript's burning," she said.

The pianist also whispers, hums and recites a passage of the text from Margarita's changing perspective during the devil's masquerade. There are echoes of dance hall music and bells from Giotto's Campanile (bell tower) in Florence.

Veronika Krausas took an almost opposite approach for her elegant and restrained "Master and Margarita Suite for Speaking Pianist." Before each movement, Faliks recites a short quote she picked with the composer.

A new album by pianist Inna Faliks features world premiere recordings of works by five composers.
Hugh Kretschmer / Inna Faliks
Inna Faliks
A new album by pianist Inna Faliks features world premiere recordings of works by five composers.

'Great art stands the test of time'

The album's title comes from a scene where Satan, disguised as one Professor Woland, grants Margarita a wish as thanks for serving as queen of his ball. She asks for the return of her lover, The Master, who wrote a novel (about Pontius Pilate) rejected by Soviet bureaucrats in 1930s Moscow under Stalin. Woland asks to see the novel when he finally meets The Master, who says he burned it. Woland then holds up the book and says "Manuscripts don't burn."

"The message here is that great art stands the test of time. Honest art stands the test of time," Faliks said.

The oft-quoted line from the novel also has biographical elements. Bulgakov himself burned an early manuscript of The Master and Margarita. His critique of Stalinist repression didn't go over well with Soviet censors. It was only in the late 1960s — more than two decades after Bulgakov's death — that it was published in the Soviet Union, and only in censored form at first.

In turn, the new works draw a thread between the different elements of Faliks' own multifaceted biography. Here's how she sums it up in her memoir published last year: "I knew I was a musician long before I knew I was Jewish, Ukrainian or Soviet."

Musical journey to Ukraine

Composer Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin found "a way to get Inna back to Ukraine, musically" in his Voices suite. In one movement, an arpeggiated piano line accompanies a 1908 recording of Ukrainian cantor Gershon Sirota, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising under Nazi occupation.

Mike Garson's "Psalm to Odesa," amplified here by the pianist's own improvisations based on a traditional fisherman song, also marks a musical return to Ukraine. "I wanted to speak to Odesa and remember the city of my childhood. As the destruction and war in Ukraine continues, I continue to dream to return to the city of my birth," Faliks says.

She recalls first hearing that Odesa had been bombed when Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. "I had lost my mom very recently," she said. "I put on her Vyshyvanka — a Ukrainian shirt — and her red necklace. I recorded a video of Beethoven's 'Appassionata' sonata and I sent it to Odesa, where I think it was put on all sorts of Ukrainian websites just with a message of hope and of love. And it felt utterly useless."

The last five pieces on the album are by Clarice Assad, who collaborated with poet Steven Schroeder for Godai, the Five Elements to create musical sketches with spoken sound and poems. They revolve around the five elements of Japanese Buddhism — wind, fire, water, earth and sky. An additional jazzy work, "Hero," that was originally part of that suite now stands on its own.

The broadcast version of this story was produced by Barry Gordemer. The digital version was edited by Obed Manuel.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]