[Leer cuento en español]

Andrei dreams that once again his hands are a blur as he plays Rachmaninov’s preludes to an adoring crowd, the frenzy creates a gale that rips the socks off the pot-bellied, mustachioed man in the front row, and the performance ends with the piano bursting into flames from the hammers’ unrelenting assault on the strings.

Recently, he’s had the chance to play the pieces that have been languishing on his to-do list for a century, with time on his hands to practice for hours and hours on end. Days pass in the blink of an eye as he coaxes virtuosities out of that piano without an audience in the corner of his living room. Since he is forbidden to leave the house, he must be diligent in ensuring that his talent remains at the forefront of people’s minds, so Andrei records himself and records himself and records himself, striving for perfection on each and every note, hoping to receive the endless ovations from enthusiastic audiences that sustain him, if only virtually. 

He watches the videos several times — the flying fingers, the waving bangs, the jumble of friendship bracelets dangling from his wrist, the glasses precarious on his nose, the pajama pants, the thirty-three years barely marked on his face — and assures himself that this incarnation into sound has retained all the sublimeness of the original composition. He settles on the version he thinks is best suited to Carnegie Hall and, on his 22nd viewing of the chosen video, the composer whispers to him that if he really intends to flaunt his talent by playing Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, Op.106, the “Hammerklavier,” it might be wise to avoid looking like a hobo, with those polka-dot pajamas and frayed cuffs. Perhaps he could suggest some nice velvet court robes shimmering with gold and silver embroidery? Andrei silences this insolence because he’s sure Ekaterina Voznesenskaya (Katia to her friends) loves his bohemian look, a true artist totally absorbed by his own genius and isolation. And is Ludwig really one to talk, anyway? That unruly mop of his always made him look like an escaped lunatic. 

It’s good, very good, the “Hammerklavier” video. If he plays like that on June 8, 2021, he will officially establish himself as an artist. For sure. Perfect rhythm, ideal harmony, optimal hand positioning… And, on top of that, it’s cunningly recorded to show him from his good side, for when people see it, for when Katia sees it.

Before he uploads it to Facebook, he puts water up to heat in the samovar and, from the kitchen window, overhears the neighbor trying to convince his girlfriend to move to Moscow once and for all. Andrei cocks an ear: for weeks he has been following the trials and tribulations of this couple and their dramatically vapid dialogue, as if ripped straight from an STS soap opera. The accusatory shouts begins, the water starts to boil, I won’t go to such a dirty, ugly city full of proud muzhiks, he searches and searches for his favorite cup, they progress to another kind of screaming, he puts the zavarka in, listens for a little while longer, pours the water into the kettle, he will never understand make-up sex, lets it steep, closes the window, sweetens the tea with jam.

He doesn’t know how he should caption the video. For the clip he posted on May 10th, he wrote, “Shortly before the corona era,” to remember one of his final concerts in a venue with an audience — dressed to kill, back then, yes: with his bow tie, his maroon suit jacket with navy blue sleeves, his tartan pants in gray tones. Katia had liked the video and every single comment made on it: “Thank God for Andrei” from Nina Golyshevskaya, “Incredibly beautiful” from Steve Kilston, “Rock star” from Marina Kononov, and “Hope you’ll be able to visit us soon” from David Lischinsky. Katia had clicked like, like, like on everything. And she herself had chimed in with, “Excellent” with one, two, three, four, five exclamation marks. Whoops, six. Six exclamation marks.

Katia has been reacting to everything Andrei posts lately: a surprised face for the video playing Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, star eyes for the shot of him in Baltimore from two years ago today, broken hearts when he uploaded endless photos of a desolate St. Petersburg under a cloudless azure sky, a thumbs up for the musical and culinary memories from that palatial Oregon mansion, green hearts for the selfie accompanied by an Oscar Wilde quote, a kiss for his short recording of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 4, a crying face for the photo of a soldier playing the piano in front of a tank with who knows what war as a backdrop. 

But what touched the musician most deeply was when Katia watched the video of the piece Solitude 3, composed by him, himself, the future superstar Andrei Ivanovich Andreev, who will soar to worldwide renown with an hour-long standing ovation in Carnegie Hall, nearly fainting from a surfeit of glory, with his wife of the future weeping tears of joy from the loge and remembering that comment she’d made on May 14, 2020: “A true reflection of solitude.”

In the end, Andrei posts the video with just the title and popular name of Beethoven’s piece accompanied by the appropriate YouTube and Spotify links, eschewing musical note emojis or any such frippery, and waits expectantly before his screen. After five and a half sips of tea, Katia’s reaction arrives. She comments with an emoji of a bouquet of flowers, conveyed to Andrei by the taciturn OZON delivery driver who hums Fanny Mendelssohn’s Nocturne in G Minor through his mask as he sullenly slams down the package with the socks Andrei ordered several week before.

He arranges the colorful socks on the white table in the living room, each pair exactly one vershok apart, and takes 3D photos of them. He already has his complete outfit for the Carnegie Hall performance (unless he gets too fat, which at this rate…), but he’s still missing the most important element. He has just received ten striking pairs with stripes, checks, diamonds, and color blocks, and he likes them all, but he can’t settle on one in particular. He puts on his suit, his shirt, his bow tie, his shoes and starts swapping the socks in and out. Nothing –  he still can’t choose. He places a mirror to one side of the piano and plays while wearing every possible chromatic combination, peeking at himself out of the corner of his eye. Nothing, nothing. He records a video of himself on his camera, searches in a sound effects library for applause to play at the end of each piece, to add authenticity — what can he say? He is addicted to that tightrope sensation of performing to a large auditorium with every error final. No dice. He strips off the rest of his clothes to perform sporting only socks: first this pair, then that pair; recording, mirror, peek, bow. It works, it works: the yellow ones with black squares are perfect for Carnegie Hall.

Perfect? No matter that he already posted the Hammerklavier video today: he’d better share the 3D photo on Facebook, see what people say, see what Katia says. He’s not going to mention the performance in New York, just in case it gets cancelled. He’ll ask casually, “Which ones would you wear for a big concert?” If Katia picks the red and black gingham pair or the white ones with two-tone triangles, he will forget her forever and create a Tinder account and all her emojis will pass in one eye and out the other.

But Katia comments immediately: “No contest, the yellow ones!” And then Andrei, from his home that is peacefully immersed in a silence as absolute as John Cage’s 4’33”, walks hand in hand with Katia through the streets of St. Petersburg and shows her the Rimsky-Korsakov school, where he teaches two days a week, and they eat borscht and pelmeni and stroll along the banks of the Neva, clothed in granite, her waters interlaced with fair bridges, past isles bedecked with dark-green parks, as they whisper verses by Alexander Pushkin and kiss each other for the first time in one of the countless stars on the domes of Trinity Cathedral and enter the paintings of Elena Figurina and Galina Khailu in the Erarta Museum, and Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor serves as a soundtrack, and they recall the time of COVID-19, already discussed in the past tense, what anxiety, when all the concerts were cancelled, and it seemed like the government wouldn’t aid artists, and no networking could be done in person, and we communicated with emojis and solitudes.

He travels back to the present hypnotized by the turtledove that lands on the windowsill every day at 7:46 PM and coos and purrs and twitters the Gavotte by Ella Adayevskaya and stares at him until hitting the final note and taking flight. The day’s last light is fading: he should have some dinner, study a little French, and read Zinaida Gippius to try to avoid thinking about June 2021.

Carnegie Hall keeps the concert on the calendar, a halo of hope shining around the date, but Andrei is aware that time deceives; it seems like only yesterday that he sat down in front of the piano and, with no prior training, imitated by ear what he’d just seen that older girl do. Almost three decades have passed in allegro vivace: twelve months more will pass in a sigh — and who knows what the world will look like a year from now. If he has learned anything in the last two months, it is that time does not exist, that the present and the future are only tinged by aspirations or fears or hopes or dreams, and that only Chopin’s nocturnes are clad in iron certainty.

{Translated by Adam Lischinsky}


More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus