Lev Oborin’s father was an engineer. At the age of eight Oborin entered the Gnessin School where he studied with Elena Gnesina. After graduating, he joined the class of Konstantin Igumnov at the Moscow Conservatory where he also studied composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky, Gyorgy Conus and Gyorgy Catoire. At the Conservatory he also studied conducting with Konstantin Saradzhev, and later with Bruno Walter and Hermann Abendroth. At the age of nineteen and while still a post-graduate student of Igumnov, Oborin won first prize at the first International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Other participants that year included Grigory Ginzburg and Jakob Gimpel. One of the works he played at his graduation recital from the Conservatory was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in B flat Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’. The following year he began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and remained on the staff for the rest of his life.
In 1936 Oborin formed what became a famous partnership with violinist David Oistrakh, and these two musicians formed a trio in 1941 with cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky which lasted until the cellist’s death in 1963. One of the greatest Soviet chamber music players of his generation, Oborin also worked with soprano Natalia Shpiller in programmes of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and was a Soviet artist who visited Europe, often with Oistrakh. At his London debut as a soloist, he played a Royal Festival Hall recital that included Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata Op. 81a and Prokofiev’s Toccata Op. 11. He performed in many other countries also, including Poland, Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Finland, Sweden, France and Japan. Oborin appears to have visited the United States only once, at the end of 1963, when he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat Op. 23 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and George Szell. He also played in Chicago, Washington DC and California. Oborin suffered a heart attack in 1957 but continued to tour, playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 with Leopold Stokowski in 1961.
Oborin had a large repertoire that favoured Russian music, particularly Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Of Prokofiev, it was the Piano Sonatas No. 2 Op. 14 and No. 7 Op. 83 as well as the Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 that were favourite works of his. In 1926 he was one of the first pianists to play that concerto in his home country, just after he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. He also played the Piano Sonata by Glinka, Tchaikovsky’s The Months Op. 37a, the Piano Concerto by Rimsky-Korsakov and works by Scriabin and Rachmaninov; plus a great deal of Chopin, performing the complete études and préludes in Leningrad.
In 1936 Oborin gave the first performance of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, subsequently recording it with the composer as conductor. Later in his career he learnt the Piano Sonata by Khachaturian and a new work by a young Soviet composer Banshchikov. He also played major works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy and Albéniz. At his sixtieth birthday concert Oborin played three of his favourite piano concertos: No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 by Chopin, No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 by Rachmaninov and No. 3 in C Op. 26 by Prokofiev. He was awarded the Stalin Prize and the Order of Lenin.
Oborin’s recordings reflect the main areas of his repertoire and include Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major K. 453, impressive accounts of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto Op. 73. Solo recordings include Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and late Beethoven piano sonatas; Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58 with an extremely fleet scherzo, and the four ballades; Tchaikovsky’s The Months Op. 37a and some of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op. 33. Oborin’s teacher Elena Gnesina based her teaching on the ideas of Vasily Safonov and Ferruccio Busoni, and Oborin had a technique that allowed him to do almost anything at the keyboard. Some of his performances of the Études-Tableaux surpass those of Sviatoslav Richter, whilst practically all of his recordings have something to recommend them. Oborin was musician first, pianist second, and his sensitive and sympathetic style was ideal for works such as Tchaikovsky’s The Months Op. 37a, yet in the great Romantic works he showed an understanding of style and form which put his performances of Rachmaninov on a high plane.
Of his chamber music recordings the Schubert and Mendelssohn trios recorded in the late 1940s were reissued by Lys, but on a visit to Britain in May 1958 Oborin recorded for EMI with Oistrakh and Knushevitsky. Excellent performances in superb sound of Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio Op. 97 and Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat Op. 99 led a reviewer in The Gramophone to exclaim, ‘The interpretation is faultless: superbly rendered, excellently balanced, groomed.’ In 2003 Preiser issued four compact discs of trio recordings including works by Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Chopin, and excellent performances of the Trio in G minor Op. 15 by Smetana and the Trio in E flat D. 929 by Schubert.
Other repertoire issued on compact disc includes Volume 13 of BMG’s Russian Piano School in which Oborin gives a poetic account of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 110, a romantic yet extraordinarily controlled performance of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58, a stunning version of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor Op. 19 and Brahms’s Klavierstücke Op. 119. It is a good cross-section of Oborin’s art, although does not give much exposure to his sensitive, communicative side. All these recordings are from the 1950s.
In 1962 Oborin and Oistrakh were in Paris performing the complete sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven. These live performances from the Salle Pleyel have been issued by Doremi, but the two musicians recorded the same repertoire in the studio for Philips in Paris.
Oborin is perhaps best remembered as a teacher, his most famous pupil being Vladimir Ashkenazy, but he was one of the greatest pianists of the Soviet era.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist