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An Obituarist Writes #18

Further to your excellent obituary of Russian (formerly Soviet) composer Vladimir Dmitri Probonovich, I write to add a small anecdote which I hope might be of interest to readers as well as admirers of the great man.

In 1967, I was amongst a group of schoolboys rehearsing for the premiere of Britten's The Golden Vanity (Op. 78) (Aldeburgh Festival, 3 June 1967) which Maestro Probonovich attended as part of the ISCM delegation. At heart a shy man, his arrival was perhaps more spectacular than he had intended. Rushing towards the outstretched arms of Mr Britten, he slipped on the remains of a lemon meringue pie carelessly discarded by a disgruntled Peter Pears and crashed into the piano. To this day I will never know whether Peter deliberately placed his plate where he did or whether as Mr Cole Porter famously wrote "It was just one of those things!". (Mr Pears was notoriously febrile when it came to others claiming Ben's attention and never forgave Mstislav Rostropovich for what he considered an unnecessarily enthusiastic familiar "sloppy wet kiss" backstage at the Royal Festival Hall in 1959. In 1968, he even went so far as to have Mstislav removed from a concert and replaced by Maestro Probonovich; which proves, if anything, that he could be a "right b*****d" (Penelope Kieth pers comm) when he wanted to be.

I have it on good authority that Maestro Probonovich also had a devilish side to him. Partial to whelks (which were I believe banned in the former Soviet Union after 1946) he often nipped off into Aldeburgh to purchase a pint of the slippery delicacies from a friendly fisherman [Old Tom]. Perhaps remembering Pear's initially frosty attitude towards him, I am told, he stole into the singer's dressing room on the night of the premiere of Death in Venice and slipped a couple of unshelled whelks into Pears' Aschenbach corsets leaving the singer in almost as much discomfort as his audience!

[CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT] Rostropovich and Britten in happier times; Probonovich with Britten and Pears in discussion - the Russian is clearly pointing the finger at the source of their troubles; Britten and Tippett compare notes on Probonovich's "performance" the previous night; Probonovich replaces Rostropovich for Britten's Cello Sonata - an instrument he could "scarcely play even on a good day"; after a testy night at the Red House, Britten warns Mstislav not to try the unnecessarily enthusiastic "sloppy wet kiss" routine again.

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