Pianist  Dmitry  Paperno

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Dmitry Paperno

(February 18, 1929 - October 12, 2020)

Paperno received his musical training under Alexander Goldenweiser at the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory, earning a Master's Degree with Honors in 1951 and an Aspirant Diploma in 1955.

A prize winner at the Fifth International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1955 and the First International Enescu Competition in Bucharest in 1958, Paperno proceeded to perform extensively throughout Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as in England, Cuba, and Belgium (as soloist with the U.S.S.R. State Orchestra at EXPO in Brussels in 1958). He also made numerous recordings for Melodiya, the record label of the Soviet Union. In 1967 Paperno began teaching at the Gnessin Moscow State Institute.

After emigrating to the United States in 1976, Paperno continued to concertize widely throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. A Professor at Chicago's DePaul University since 1977 (later Emeritus), Paperno has been on the jury panel for many international piano competitions. He has also given master classes at the Moscow Conservatory as well as in Belgium, Finland, Portugal, and the United States, including classes at Oberlin and the Manhattan School of Music.

Paperno is the author of several essays on music and pianism and the books Notes of a Moscow Pianist (Amadeus Press) [with a preface by Vladimir Ashkenazy] and Postscriptum [with an afterword by Mstislav Rostropovich]. He also made several recordings on the Cedille Records label.


In January of 1999, Dmitry Paperno graciously came to the studios of WNIB, Classical 97, for an interview.  As we were setting up to record our conversation, he complimented me on my work at the station, and asked me not to let him down when presenting this encounter. . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re asking me not to let you down.  When you are playing the piano, is it your responsibility not to let the composers down?

Dmitry Paperno:   It goes without saying, of course.

BD:   Is it something you’re conscious of all the time?

Paperno:   No, it’s as much part of our profession.  You’re only the middle man between the creator and the receiver, meaning the audience, so you have to be.  Otherwise, you’re not a professional person if you don’t do your best every time.  I have to represent the music of the great masters to the audience, and this is the first presentation for them no matter how many times you do it.
BD:   You say you represent the music of the great masters.  Do you only play great masters, or do you sometimes play lesser lights?

paperno Paperno:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s hard to answer.  I have sometimes been asked who my favorite composer is, and it’s impossible to answer this question.  The music which you are playing is always the best way of displaying the moment always.  But if you ask me to give the few names of the most favorite composers of mine, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

BD:   I never ask that question, but I do ask how you select which pieces and which composers you will play, and which pieces and composers you will either set aside or never play.

Paperno:   Most of the time it’s still my choice.  In the Soviet Union, of course, you are obliged to play and represent Soviet music.  You must select a certain percentage of it, especially when you went abroad to play.  Every concert should include some.  It was a must to play a set of Soviet music.

BD:   Soviet music, or Russian music?

Paperno:   Soviet.  It was mentioned that it should be presented, and in the case of great composers
like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Boris Alexandrov, and quite a few talented here from the younger generations like Arno Babajanian, Andrei Eshpai, or Rodion Shchedrinnobody would mind.  Sometimes the demands went overboard, but still it was impossible to resist the pressure.  You must do it.

BD:   Did it please you that at least there was enough good material to choose from when you’re being leaned on to play their pieces?

Paperno:   Oh, yes!  There was enough, unless there were specific commissions and music which was obviously
against your skin, as we said.  But still you had to comply with it, otherwise you could jeopardize a favorable trip, or desirable dates along the way, or trips abroad.

BD:   You don’t need to mention anything specifically, but was there ever a time when you were obliged to play something, and when you got it you thought, “My goodness, this is really nice.”?

Paperno:   A couple of times it was exactly the other way round, but yes, I can say so.  I was not delighted with being commissioned to play the Eshpai Piano Concerto, but when I got accustomed to it, I played it with pleasure.  But it happened not just with the Soviet music.  I remember the same attitude towards, say, the Liszt Ninth Rhapsody, or Carnival in Pest, which made a very negative impression on me first, and yet with the passage of time and a period of adjustment, I played it with pleasure, and I recorded it.

BD:   But it’s still your choice of what to play?

Paperno:   Oh, absolutely, yes.

BD:   Are there times that you wish you could play lots more than you’re able to play just in one concert, or even in one lifetime?

Paperno:   It’s hard to say.  I don’t think I represent a group of performers whose span of repertoire is almost hard to embrace.  There is the opposite.  I’d say people like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Radu Lupu, and I can add more names who were not famous for the quantitative side of their life in music.  So, it’s not crucial, and I don’t belong to those who embrace all the kinds of repertoire, like Vladimir Sofronitsky, or Daniel Barenboim, or many others.

BD:   You concentrate on a few, and bring your special gifts to those composers?

Paperno:   If you will, yes, and in some cases it gives an explanation, such as my participation in the Chopin Competition in my young years, when I was obviously limited in a pleasant way, or attached to basically the music of Chopin.  There were also periods when I was very much involved with specific Russian music, like Alexander Scriabin, or Nikolai Medtner.  It definitely was reflected in my choosing of repertoire.

BD:   What is it that we in the West need to learn about playing Russian music, or perhaps even the good Soviet music?

Paperno:   You mean what to play, or how to play it?
BD:   How to play it.  What is it that we need to understand about the music?

Paperno:   [Thinks again]  It’s a good, but treacherous question, which is hard to answer.  I do not know.  There are some approaches which are always necessary and appropriate towards it, just as everything that we do in life.  Playing music is a part of it, and the Russian music in particular.  As to practical advice on how to play, and why you should play Russian music differently from music of other great musicians, it’s hard to say.  There are some general guidelines, which include definitely having a musical intelligence, taste, and sufficient technical equipment to do it.  But to specify how to play Russian music, I would rather abstain from this kind of a pronouncement.

BD:   That’s all right.  Could you give a general idea, or a general bit of advice?

Paperno:   If you say it’s got a good tone and long phrasing, you can apply it to any music, starting with Scarlatti who did write for the contemporary piano.  These are the general rules which I espouse.

BD:   Then let me ask this...  What is it, for you, that makes a piece of music great?

Paperno:   You can give me a hard time!  [Both laugh]  It’s hard to say.  It’s a combination of intellect, and sensitivity, and a great sense of form and harmonic language.  It’s really hard to specify why some music strikes you immediately and you never forget it.  It happens many times with everyone, and it is the same with me.  But sometimes music which did not impress you the first time, once you start and your musical eyes start to open to it, then it becomes an integral part of your musical life for the rest of your days.  It’s happened with me many, many times with many works of Schubert or Brahms.  Sometimes you’re too young to appreciate it.  It is the same with literature, such as Don Quixote, or War and Peace.  It
s a different criterion, but you’re still not mature enough to appreciate all the greatness of it.

BD:   Are you ever mature enough to appreciate all the greatness in it?

Paperno:   Of course not!  [Both laugh]

BD:   So, you keep learning?

Paperno:   That’s the beauty of life.  In music, there is always something which you know by heart, and when you play or teach it, suddenly you discover something which just strikes you.  It could be the beauty of logic, or some harmonic sequel which you just did not notice before, and when it happens it makes your life worthwhile.

BD:   You don’t need to mention anything specific, but are there are any pieces that you know you’ve gotten everything out of it, and there’s no more depth to be plumbed?

Paperno:   It wouldn’t be wise for me to say so, therefore no, absolutely not, no!  You can stop to thank your faith, or the Good Lord who gave you this ability to appreciate and enjoy music as maybe the strongest and longest-lasting enjoyment of your life.  That’s exactly what I meant.

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BD:   When you’re playing a concert, and you’re sitting there at the keyboard, are you in front of an instrument playing it, or does that instrument become part of you, an extension of you?

Paperno:   [With a wink]  Are you sure you didn’t read my book?  [At this point I had not.]  Because in your question you used exactly my expression.  [Both laugh]  Not during the concert, but your instrument and yourself make the same musical body to produce music.  I believe that’s the reward which is given only to us musicians.  The concert stage is different.  Again, not to promote the book, but very frankly I discussed the very important and, in many cases, the crippling problem of fear of stage [stage fright], which reveals itself sometimes unexpectedly.  Sometimes you help it not to affect you negatively if you let your weakness go, so to speak.  This is for me, and for practically all musicians, it’s a constant struggle with yourself.  There are some musicians, some friends of mine, some great musicians, for whom just being on stage, and having the ability to share your gift with other people, prevails over all your quality of your human weakness.  But not everybody is given it, and I can cite many names of great musicians, great performers
pianists, violinists, even singerswho are extremely unhappy with what happened this evening during the concert which they gave.

paperno BD:   Is it that they focus on a small detail which they did not do correctly?

Paperno:   They couldn’t resist this overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and insecurity.

BD:   It’s as general thing rather than a specific thing?

Paperno:   Absolutely, of course it is!  Sometimes you play in a huge concert hall in front of 3,000 people, and then you feel happy because you’re at your best.  You do what you’re capable of doing.  But sometimes you play in a small hall, or a small school of music in a little town in middle Russia, or central Asia, and you think bad thoughts about yourself.  You don’t think you are born to do it.

BD:   [Surprised]  It’s not just the big important places that would frighten you?

Paperno:   No.  There is no sense of security, and it is irrational to you.  The bad thing is when you liken it to illness.  As long as you don’t know the origin of it, you cannot fight it.  That’s exactly what it is.  You can sleep well, you can practice sufficiently, and you feel good, and then you walk out on the stage and you feel that you yourself are something very little, and not too attractive.

BD:   But you have to surmount that?

Paperno:   Exactly.  So you’re in a battle, and it’s not always you who will win.

BD:   [Ever the optimist]  I hope you win most of the time...

Paperno:   Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived at all on stage for as long as I have.  But it’s an extremely difficult process, and it is many-sided, and sometimes it’s hard to explain how irrational it is.

BD:   In the end, is it worth it?

Paperno:   Absolutely, yes.  I couldn’t do anything else.  I wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve given over the years?

Paperno:   Percentage-wise, in my situation I’d say something between sixty and seventy per cent is a good number.  I would never be completely satisfied with myself, but yes.

BD:   What about the recordings, because they have a little more longevity and a wider distribution?

Paperno:   That’s a different story.  It’s a different kind of performance with its own difficulties and obstacles, but the stage-fright per se does not exist there.  There is something else because you’re on your own with only microphones, in a huge
or not necessarily hugeplace.  In the case of the Moscow Radio House studio, there is something which mysteriously connects you with the audience at the very beginning, or for several minutes during the whole concert, and those are the most precious moments which we usually don’t forget.  We don’t have this thing in the recording studio.

BD:   You can’t recreate it?

Paperno:   Apparently not, but if you have an artistic personality, you can imagine yourself in it.  It’s hard to say.  If you’re warmed up enough so the concern of technical perfection does not prevail, it doesn’t take its toll over everything else.  Then you create something which you like to hear and listen to.  I know of many examples, myself included, when we don’t like our recordings.  In many cases in the Soviet Union, special councils select what will or will not be printed on the recordings.  There is strict comparison because the competition is extremely high.  There was a chain of less fortunate performances, especially abroad during international competitions, when you represent your country
— [with an ironic tone] the Great Soviet Russian Republicand if you fail, there is, if not political, at least the logical feeling that you let your country down.  That was our mentality.

BD:   I would assume that if you let your country down more than once or twice, you wouldn’t get the opportunity again.

Paperno:   Absolutely not.  In fact, very few people have managed to be sent a second time after an unfortunate performance the first time.  But the second failure would be the end of their career forever.

BD:   That seems like a lot of pressure.

Paperno:   You said it!

BD:   Is there such a thing, either on record or in performance, as a perfect performance?  Can that be achieved?

Paperno:   Apparently so.  There are a few recordings of mine which I like, and I am happy they happened to be printed in big quantities.  But there is also more than one type of performance.  Take Vladimir Sofronitsky, who had been an extremely creative and improvisatory musician, and at the same time very strict and very wise architecturally in a matter of form on stage.  That was an amazing blend of elements and intellect.  For him it was almost torture to make recordings, while you could hardly imagine Grigory Ginzburg, with his absolutely amazing and impeccable quality, brushing against the wrong key.  For him, recording sessions strove for the same spiritual essence of making music as on stage.  So again, it’s impossible to establish some rules or regulations in our profession.  That’s what makes it extremely irrational, at the same time it’s like a labor of love.  Once you tried it, you’d never give it up voluntarily.


BD:   You spent much of your career in Russia, and then you came here [America] in 1976?
Paperno:   Yes.  Its a long and quite painful story, and more or less a common one.  [Sighs]  I was tired of phrases like political freedom and creative freedom etc., a little of everything.  In my case, there was something else which was connected, namely my teaching career.  Also, what makes me kind of different could be my age.  Usually, people more ambitious than I lose quality and fight for it at an earlier age.  I was forty-seven, and frankly it was jumping blind-folded into dark water.  It was of these crazy actions with some people during their lives.

BD:   I assume you have no regrets?

Paperno:   No, I don’t, but I had objective reasons not to regret anything.  I was accepted at DePaul University my very first year in this country.  How can I regret that?  I stayed with DePaul, and now I’m in the midst of my twenty-second academic year.  But I would feel that way even without that, and even without taking into consideration what happens now in Russia.  It’s in a terrible state, and unfortunately all formerly Soviet Russian people are paying a terrible price for this extremely cruel and irrational political regime of seventy years.  It’s the accumulation of lack of respect to each other, of lying, of fear, of repressions.  It couldn’t go on for much longer without collapsing.  It’s a matter of generations, I don’t know how many.  No, I don’t regret my decision.

BD:   While you were still there, you were playing music all the time.  Did that help to preserve the true Russian spirit, and the true human spirit despite what was happening politically?

Paperno:   [Thinks a moment]  It helped, but not for long.  Gradually, there was the accumulation of disappointments and humiliation (not in my professional life), and the expectation of something worse.  Then came the terrible invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  For you it is hard to understand what happened then, and what terrible shame we felt for our country.  There were many other things like that, and more and more conversations with unknown people.  Let’s not forget that I lived a concert life for almost a quarter of a century.  There were hundreds of hotels, planes and trains, sleepless nights, meetings and conversations.  I still remember many of them, and they were not only encouraging, but very negative and depressing.  To directly answer your question, yes, playing music helped, but only at the moment.  As soon as you got out of the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, or out of your studio, the hard life with its cruelty would get you again.  There were certain periods you could take it, and there were people who would not admit they were born to be slaves.  They knew they should do something, and that partially explains what thousands of Russian people did by leaving their own country.

BD:   Did you advise anyone else to do the same, or to follow you?

Paperno:   No.  As a matter of fact, during my most difficult period, some of my American friends told me not to immigrate.  No, I wouldn’t advise anyone to go through our experience.  With a wife, who was not a musician but a history teacher by profession, and the little daughter who was five or six then, no!  If I think back, it almost surprises me how what we finally decided to do could happen.  But the criteria are difficult, or they don’t fear what could happen.  It was a desperate jump into nothingness, which I don’t regret.

BD:   It paid off for you?

Paperno:   Yes and no.

BD:   I hope more yes than no.

Paperno:   Yes, absolutely.  But when I go to Moscow now to give masterclasses at the Moscow Conservatory, I visited the studio of my teacher and his apartment.  There are also a few friends who are still left, who are still alive and didn’t leave the country.  I understand every Russian phrase spoken around me without even thinking of it.  I’m happy that I was given the opportunity to go, just to walk through the Moscow streets and hear the Russian language all around me.

BD:   But you have no desire to return to live there?

Paperno:   No!  Definitely not.  The most bitter period of my nostalgic feelings
which took almost ten yearswas actually over after my first visit to Moscow in 1988.  It was already not the country which I’d left, which I grew up in, and I felt even more so on every subsequent visit.

BD:   How often do you go back now
every couple of years or so?

Paperno:   I went in 1996, and last year, in the spring of 1998.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a purely musical question.  What is the purpose of music?

Paperno:   [Thinks a moment]  Don’t expect any revelation from me.  It’s hard to say.  The great chess players ask what exactly chess is, and you get many equally convincing answers.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  I want to know what it is for you.

Paperno:   I can’t tell!  Thinking of chess, it could be sport, it could be a struggle, a fight, the triumph of the intellect, and it’s the same with music.  It’s very individual.  I wouldn’t be myself without music, but I wouldn’t try to open anybody’s eyes to explain.  [He then proceeded to give me a brief lesson on the correct pronunciation of the names of famous Russian composer
s.]  I heard your interview with Shchedrin.  He’s a friend of mine... not too close, but a good one.  In 1963, I asked him to help me to get his Sonata for Piano, which I couldn’t find.  I visited him in his apartment, and we spent several hours in a very friendly way.  He and his wife were absolutely lovely to me, and he visited us the last time he was in Chicago.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write music for the piano these days?
Paperno:   I don’t want to impose any limitations on that.  I would be very careful with this so-called ‘modern music’ in the wide sense.  I don’t want to go too far with it because it could be too personal.  But even the serial, or dodecaphonic system, in the hands of big musicians can create very, very impressive results.  Sometimes it could cover something which is not very easy to be written down.  It’s hard to say.  Mozart, who lived, as you know, two hundred years ago, said, “Whatever music depicts or reveals, it should always stay to be music.”  It sounds very naïve now, but that’s exactly what it is.
BD:   What advice do you have for young performers coming along who want to play the piano?

Paperno:   For the modern music, or in general?

BD:   In general.

Paperno:   Be able to be a good critic of your own.  Don’t be crushed by negative reactions, or negative words or references, and don’t take literally all the praise which you garner.  Compliments are so nice in our everyday lives, but in music, our profession, which is terribly demanding, doesn’t tolerate any deviation from objectivity.  Excess praise, which you do not yet deserve, might serve you badly.  This is a profession which brings it all together.  It’s an extremely important profession, much more than just money-making and living.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of the music profession?

Paperno:   Both in composing and performing in general?  That’s a good question.  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  People who want to hear me will hear me.  There is such a level of perfection which has been reached already, it’s impossible to imagine it will develop even further.  I cannot, but I’m limited to time, as is everyone, and I would rather ask why we would need some further perfection when we’re so happy and impressed, and can’t forget some performances for the rest of our life?  It’s the same in sport.  Ten years ago there were results in track and field, and look what’s happened ten years later.

BD:   The records keep getting broken.

Paperno:   Right.  I don’t think music can be compared to this, literally, and if that’s pessimism, then I’m a pessimist.  I don’t think about the necessity of further development of the performing art.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want us to just listen to the old records from now until eternity, do you???

Paperno:   Oh, you’re trying to corner me [laughs] and quite successfully!  I do not know, and I don’t want to say something of this kind.  Hypothetically, if you see a poster of Paganini playing a recital in your city, are you sure you would be over-whelmed and crushed by a musical impression of the people one-hundred-fifty years ago?  Unfortunately, I don’t think so.  I am most happy to say it, but again you pushed me!

BD:   Of course.  I’m looking for the wisdom you have accumulated.

Paperno:   That’s what it is.  What was possible fifty years ago, or even twenty-five years ago, was not one-hundred percent perfection in technique, but it wouldn’t bother our audiences, or even the juries.  Nowadays, you wouldn’t tolerate it.

BD:   Now we expect the technical perfection.

Paperno:   Yes, first of all!  Then, to what extent would you accept the sacrifice of musical spirit for the sake of technical perfection?  That’s another question, and again, I can’t tell you.

BD:   I guess what we’re looking for is both the perfection and the inspiration.

Paperno:   There are not many names that would satisfy both sides of this statement.

BD:   Is this what everyone strives for?

Paperno:   Of course, and all of us did.

BD:   Should we still keep striving for it?

Paperno:   Absolutely, yes, of course, but the percentage of people who managed I don’t know.  Speaking of the piano, it’s hard to be objective.  There are a very few, and that’s it among the hundreds of thousands of musicians who did strive, and still are striving, and will continue to do so.  You mentioned the word optimism.  I’m not optimistic in the sense of your question, and it doesn’t upset me.  I don’t think it’s necessary.  It’s the rule of life
the strongest survive, and the stronger ones succeed.  No wonder the number is so small.

BD:   One last question.  Is playing the piano fun?

Paperno:   [Thinks again for a moment]  Of course it is.  There is enjoyment, yes, but first of all, it’s sweet hard labor, which would not exist without a sense of fun, or enjoyment, or the expectation of it.  But it is fun, of course, and I have had several cases in my pedagogy practice when students were so much preoccupied with success, and the achievements, and struggle, that the element of fun was almost lost, along with their enjoyment of life.  They only labored.  They became toilers without enjoying it.

BD:   That’s too bad.   

Paperno:   It’s very bad!  After all, it’s art, and when something wrong happens on stage, nobody would die!  It is just an unfortunate performance.  You don’t have a deadly weapon in your possession when you play.  Of course, it’s fun!  That is part of it, even a necessary part.  I would rather say it’s enjoyment.  It’s not only smiling.  It’s something more than that, and something more spiritual.  There is satisfaction and enjoyment, something a little more lofty than just fun.

BD:   Thank you for your artistry over all these years, and for the recordings that you continue to make.

Paperno:   Thank you.



© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, on January 9, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.