Prolific, expressive composer, a protege of Shostakovich
Boris Tishchenko, who has died aged 71 of cancer, was not only a fine composer, but also a survivor from a distinctive and colourful era of Russian and Soviet culture. In the late 1950s, he was part of a group of young artists and writers in Leningrad, including the poet Joseph Brodsky, who found greater freedom to experiment during the Khrushchev thaw. And he was probably the last pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich extremely close to that elusive master, trusted and guided by him, and treated with fatherly affection and concern.
Tishchenko was born in Leningrad. He rejoiced in 1991 when his native town took back its old name of St Petersburg, but he was even more fiercely proud of the city's tragic Soviet history, and especially of how it survived its nearly 900-day siege by the Germans during the second world war. This was the central event of Tishchenko's early childhood, later commemorated with drama and passion in his symphony The Blockade Chronicles (1984), inspired in part by diaries and writings of some of those who died.
A gifted young pianist, he was proficient enough at the age of 15 to enter the Leningrad Musical College, where his composition teacher was Galina Ustvolskaya. Tishchenko always spoke warmly of the notoriously prickly and eccentric Ustvolskaya, praising the fierce discipline of her teaching and her artistic single-mindedness. It was through Ustvolskaya that he came to the attention of Shostakovich.
From 1957 to 1962, Tishchenko studied at the Leningrad Conservatoire, where his teachers included the distinguished symphonist Vadim Salmanov, whose more conventionally Soviet music also left its mark on him. In 1962 he embarked on three years of postgraduate studies with Shostakovich, at the end of which he himself joined the staff of the conservatoire, where he remained for the rest of his life – tall, somewhat unpredictable, but always courteous to the young and curious.
Tishchenko's earliest music reflects deep admiration of his idols, Ustvolskaya and Shostakovich, but also the effect on him of his friendship with Brodsky and their rebellious circle.
It was Brodsky who led Tishchenko to the poet Anna Akhmatova, then a literary figure of world significance, but still treated with suspicion and a menacing silence by the Soviet regime. She was a natural emblem of artistic heroism in the face of repression.
Tishchenko's characteristically ambitious response was to set to music the whole of her great poem-cycle Requiem, written between 1935 and 1941. Since these poems were an attempt, in Akhmatova's own punctilious word, to "describe" the experience of Stalinism's Great Terror of the later 1930s, they were unpublished and "forbidden". Tishchenko's darkly expressionist setting for two voices and orchestra was completed in 1966, the year of the poet's death.
Naturally, it too could not be performed publicly for many years, but the composer and friends gave private performances at that period, usually for one voice and piano, which established Tishchenko's underground reputation. It remains one of his greatest achievements, vividly evoking the emotional struggles of young Soviet artists of the 1960s to comprehend the inhuman scale of the Stalinist disaster, and also to link their own work to that of previous generations.
Another powerful influence on the young Tishchenko was the rich post-Shostakovich generation of more or less modernist young composers scattered around the cities of the Soviet Union, among them Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina in Moscow; Arvo Pärt in Tallinn; and Valentin Silvestrov and Leonid Hrabovsky in Kiev. Their experiments at borrowing from the frowned-on western avant garde and their fearlessness in breaking dull Soviet conventions bore strange fruit in Tishchenko's own early fondness for unusual combinations of instruments and weirdly deformed structures.
Particularly striking in this respect are his First Cello Concerto (1963), with an orchestra of 17 woodwind instruments, percussion and harmonium, written for Mstislav Rostropovich, whose outstanding recording of it was reissued in an EMI box set; and the even odder Second Cello Concerto (1969), with an orchestra of 48 cellos, 12 double basses and percussion – and nothing else. Disapproving of the strange scoring of the First Cello Concerto, Shostakovich provided his own, more conventional, orchestration as a gift for the younger composer's 30th birthday.
Tishchenko's output was large and covered many genres, including a great deal of orchestral music. There were seven traditionally numbered symphonies stretching from 1961 to 1994, several unnumbered symphonies, and, from 1998 to 2005, a further cycle of five choral and orchestral symphonies inspired by Dante. In Tishchenko's original conception, these were to have been ballets, an entire evening devoted to the Divine Comedy in dancing and vocal and orchestral music. In the absence of a choreographer to take on such an ambitious project, and to the wistful frustration of the composer, the idea became a purely concert one.
Tishchenko wrote lots of chamber music, including some impressive string quartets. He was an exuberant pianist whose many piano works include 10 sonatas, nearly all of which are imagined on a symphonic scale. Anyone who visited him in his apartment in St Petersburg will have memories of the eternally boyish composer enthusiastically treating his visitors to a recital of these pieces on a piano that was often in serious need of tuning.
In 1989 I interviewed him for Barrie Gavin's memorable BBC film about Soviet composers, Think Today, Speak Tomorrow, shown on BBC2 in 1991. He was formal and noncommittal in his replies, until I suggested that his generation of composers had been somewhat isolated from historical developments in music by the political circumstances of the Soviet Union.
As I had hoped, he reacted angrily, jabbing his forefinger in my face: "No! How could we be isolated when we had Shostakovich? And when Shostakovich was a genius? He was always a genius and he was always himself. It made no difference who was in power. And whatever tyrant he might have lived ... under Stalin, under Hitler, under Nero ... he would always have been Shostakovich. And in 100 years, when this sick interest in Stalin and his crimes has finally died away, Shostakovich will still be remembered."
His first marriage, which ended in divorce, was to Anastasia Braudo. She, too, was a keyboard player, and they had a son, Dmitri, named in honour of Shostakovich. With his second wife, the singer Galina Kulichenko, he had a son, Vsevolod. This marriage also ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Irina Donskaya, for whom he wrote his harp concerto; their son, Andrei; and the two sons from his earlier marriages.
• Boris Ivanovich Tishchenko, composer, pianist and teacher, born 23 March 1939; died 9 December 2010
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