Inna Faliks explores her Ukrainian Jewish heritage in new album: NPR

A new album by pianist Inna Faliks contains world premiere recordings of works by five composers.

Rosalind Wong/Inna Faliks


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Rosalind Wong/Inna Faliks

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A new album by pianist Inna Faliks contains world premiere recordings of works by five composers.

Rosalind Wong/Inna Faliks

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

The subversive fantasy recasts the story of Faust's tryst with the devil under the lens of censorship. The text has so deeply marked the Ukrainian-born pianist that it serves as a touchstone of her latest album, Manuscripts don't burnfeaturing world premiere recordings by five composers.

“There's something very romantic about the idea that I was already a dissident when I carried this book,” Faliks told NPR's Michel Martin as she recounted her family's trip to Vienna and Rome before landing in Chicago. “There are vampires and flying witches and mostly boring and useful idiot administrators who are punished by these forces of nature. And I found it all completely fascinating and captivating.”

Strumming and tapping the strings

In some of the newly commissioned works, Faliks speaks lines from the novel or mimics some of the characters, bringing new life to the listener's ear.

Faliks sometimes strums wildly on the piano strings “like I'm a cat with claws” in “Manuscripts Don't Burn” by Curtis Institute of Music graduate Maya Miro Johnson. “And that actually evokes the sound of fire, maybe crackling in the fireplace. So that's the manuscript on fire,” she said.

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

Veronika Krausas took an almost opposite approach for her elegant and modest 'Master and Margarita Suite for Speaking Pianist'. Before each movement, Faliks recites a short quote that she has selected together with the composer.

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A new album by pianist Inna Faliks contains world premiere recordings of works by five composers.

Hugh Kretschmer/Inna Faliks


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Hugh Kretschmer/Inna Faliks

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A new album by pianist Inna Faliks contains world premiere recordings of works by five composers.

Hugh Kretschmer/Inna Faliks

'Great art stands the test of time'

The album's title comes from a scene in which Satan, disguised as Professor Woland, makes a wish to Margarita in gratitude for serving as queen of his ball. She asks for the return of her lover, The Master, who wrote a novel (about Pontius Pilate) that was 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 contains biographical elements. Bulgakov himself burned an early manuscript of The master and Margarita. His criticism of Stalinist oppression did not go down well with the Soviet censors. It was not published in the Soviet Union until the late 1960s – more than twenty years after Bulgakov's death – and initially only in censored form.

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

Musical trip to Ukraine

Composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin found “a way to musically bring Inna back to Ukraine” in his To vote suite. In one movement, a piano line with arpeggios accompanies a 1908 recording by Ukrainian cantor Gershon Sirota, who died during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising under Nazi occupation.

Mike Garson's 'Psalm to Odesa', here enhanced by the pianist's own improvisations based on a traditional fisherman's 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 of returning to the city of my birth,” says Faliks.

She remembers first hearing that Odesa had been bombed when Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. “I had very recently lost my mother,” she said. 'I put on her Vyshyvanka – a Ukrainian shirt – and her red necklace. I made a recording video of Beethoven's 'Appassionata' sonata and I sent it to Odesa, where I think it was posted on all kinds of Ukrainian websites, just with a message of hope and love. And it felt completely pointless.”

The last five pieces on the album are by Clarice Assad, who collaborated with poet Steven Schroeder 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 air. A complementary jazzy work, 'Hero', which was originally part of that suite, now stands alone.

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

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