One of five children, Sirota received his first lessons from a family friend, Michael Wexler. By the age of eight Sirota gave his first recital in Kiev and joined the Imperial Music School, studying with Chodorowski; and when he was a boy of ten he embarked on his first concert tour of his homeland. Paderewski heard him at this time and invited him to Paris to study with him, but as Sirota’s parents were not happy about their young son leaving home to travel so far on his own, the offer was declined. By the time Sirota was fourteen he was working as a coach at the Kiev State Opera. At one of his recitals in Moscow he was heard by Alexander Glazunov, at that time director of the St Petersburg Conservatory. As with Simon Barere, Glazunov took an interest in the talented youth, and personally taught him.
Sirota graduated from the Conservatory, Glazunov being so impressed with his talent that he suggested Sirota continue his studies in Vienna with Busoni, to whom Glazunov wrote a letter of introduction. However, the young man wanted to play for a number of great pianists, so he auditioned for Paderewski, Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann and Busoni. All of them accepted him, but he chose Busoni, and when he handed his letter from Glazunov to the great Italian, Busoni responded that he did not need to see it; he had heard Sirota play the piano and that was enough. Only a few of Busoni’s pupils received his dedicated individual instruction, among them Egon Petri, Etelka Freund, Michael Zadora, Edward Weiss, and Sirota himself. In 1908 after Sirota played Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy Busoni shut the piano, said that he did not wish to hear anyone else that day and inscribed a copy of his Elegies to Sirota.
In 1910, when Busoni knew that Sirota was ready for his mature debut, he arranged a concert at the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna. Sirota played the Don Juan Fantasy, Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos with Busoni, and the programme culminated in Busoni’s gargantuan Piano Concerto Op. 39 with the composer conducting. The concert was a huge success. Sirota continued to study with Busoni during World War I, concurrently studying law and philosophy at the University of Vienna. While playing with Jascha Horenstein, Sirota met his sister, Augustine, whom he married. During the 1920s Sirota formed a trio with violinist Robert Pollak and cellist Friedrich Buxbaum and in 1921 was invited to Berlin by conductor Serge Koussevitzky to play the piano concertos No. 1 Op. 23 by Tchaikovsky and No. 4 by Anton Rubinstein. A review of this concert described Sirota’s ‘brilliant virtuosity, racy temperament and engaging personality’. Tours followed, taking him to all corners of Europe including Paris, Budapest, London, Monaco, Lisbon and Madrid. Sirota favoured large works: at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1926 his programme included Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903, Liszt’s ‘Dante’Sonata, Chopin’s complete Préludes Op. 28 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In Vienna one programme included Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13, some Scriabin, Prokofiev and Tausman, a Schubert sonata, and the Vienna première of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. In 1927 he and fellow-Busoni pupil Egon Petri gave a series of two-piano recitals throughout Soviet Russia.
After concerts in Japan in 1928 Sirota returned the following year to give sixteen recitals in Tokyo. He was then offered the post of head of the piano department of Ueno Imperial Academy in Tokyo. He and his family settled there, but during World War II times were very difficult for the Sirotas. Their daughter had travelled to America and was studying at Mills College in California, and in July 1941 Sirota and his wife visited their daughter in California, but returned to Japan in November. The political situation worsened and Sirota was dismissed from the Imperial Academy; he and his wife were exiled to a village where they endured many hardships. Fortunately, at the end of the war, their daughter Beate travelled to Japan and located her parents.
After declining to resume his position at the Academy, Sirota and his family left for New York. He gave his Carnegie Hall debut, prompting one critic to write, ‘What can we say of this pianist who can make child’s play of Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy? It was the most dazzling performance I have heard anywhere.’ The programme also included Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106 and both books of Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini Op. 35. With Koussevitzky’s recommendation, Sirota then took a post as artist in residence at the St Louis Institute of Music where he remained for nearly twenty years. He broadcast regularly on the local radio station, performing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the complete works of Chopin and Schumann, a Liszt series and many other works by Bach, Brahms, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. In 1963 Sirota and his wife returned to Japan at the invitation of former students. The series of recitals he gave there that December were his last and he died in New York in February 1965.
Sirota made his first records in the1920s for the Homochord company and all are acoustic discs. There is an impressive Polonaise in A flat Op. 53 by Chopin that reminds one of Ignaz Friedman in its majestic swaggering style, yet retains more clarity and directness in its delivery. Unusually for the time, an extended work was recorded, the Études Symphoniques Op. 13 of Schumann, as well as short works by Sirota’s teacher Glazunov, Anton Rubinstein, and some préludes by Rachmaninov which show a liberal yet natural use of rubato. Sirota’s only other commercial discs were made for Columbia in Japan around 1938. There is a highly impressive account of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka that shows his fantastic technique, incisive rhythm, strength and power. Fortunately, Arbiter Records traced Sirota’s daughter, who found tapes containing over thirty hours of radio broadcasts from St Louis, as well as transcription discs of twenty-eight of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Two compact discs have been published so far. The first, entitled Russian Masterpieces, contains rare works: Glazunov’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op.74, five works by Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata in G major all recorded in 1955. The second release contains part of Sirota’s farewell recital in Tokyo and two works of Liszt from the St Louis broadcasts, most importantly one of Sirota’s specialities, the Don Juan Fantasy.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist