an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

The flute that inspired Dmitri Shostakovich

Our friend Dianne Winsor, principal flute at Orquesta Sinfonica de Castilla y Leon, has just shared a piece of Shostakovich lore we had never heard before. While rehearsing Debussy this week, conductor Vasily Petrenko told her that the flute sound Shsotakovich wrote for was that of the wife of Yevgeny Mravinsky, the Leningrad Philharmonic conductor who premiered most of his symphonies.

Alexandra Vavilina-Mravinsky was principal flute of Leningrad Phil from 1962-89. She is now 85 and still a presence around St Pete. She will preside next month at a Mravinsky festival in Narva, Estonia.



Listen to her in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the expressive timbre that Shostakovich sought.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. That nanny goat vibrato went out around the beginning of the 20th century.

    • I agree. It makes a good story, but she is not a great player in my opinion. Actually, on many Mravinsky/Leningrad Philharmonic recordings the flute seems to be the weakest link sound-wise and intonation-wise. When I was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory I even heard some people draw the connection between the lack of real flute talent in the city to the fact that she was a longtime flute professor there. Go figure. But the fact is, Russia is not famous for its flutists, like it is famous for string players, pianists and conductors.

    • “That nanny goat vibrato”

      I will pedantically note that the “faun” in the original poem is indeed a goat-like creature…

      • Dominy Clements says:

        That ‘nanny goat’ vibrato is actually your French ‘joli son’, which you will hear in Marcel Moyse and others. Agreed it is a bit over pervasive, but is one way of projecting your sound when all around you are able to kick out much more volume. The British period style of Gareth Morris (for instance) contrasts greatly with this, being almost vibrato-free. This has its own problems of course, but usually mixed in nicely with all the other vibrato-free instruments.

  2. TuttiFlutie says:

    Hi, Sasha – “Russia is not famous for its flutists” – I respectfully beg to differ!

    Denis Bouriakov, Principal Flute of the MET.

    Alexandr Haskin, Co-Principal Flute Qatar Philharmonic

    Alexandra Grot, 2006 Nielsen Competition winner, Kobe prize winner

    And the list goes on and on. Mr. Bouriakov, incidentally, takes that wonderful Russian string tradition right to the flute. Beside Khatch in the video above, he does Sibelius Violin Concerto beautifully.

    • These are the notable exceptions rather than the rule of those who are coming out of Paris, New York and London.

  3. TuttiFlutie says:

    And as far as the merits of Alexandra Vavilina’s level of flute playing go or whether or not her vibrato is outdated, who cares?

    It’s not necessarily because she was the greatest flute player in the world that she exerted influence over Shostakovich, it’s because she was around him a lot when he was composing and premiering his major works. Mravinsky was good friends with Shostakovich. She was Mravinsky’s wife. They hung out together, shared ideas.

    She is an opinionated, strong woman who even to this day expresses her ideas openly. It’s easy to imagine she did the same in Shostakovich’s presence. And her level of playing is fine. Beautiful sound, definite musical ideas, sshe had plenty to offer as a Principal Flute.

    If I were to point a finger at one particular instrument in Mravinsky’s recordings or the Russian school of wind playing in general for being weak, it certainly would not be the flutes. It’s the horns beyond any shadow of a doubt.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I really love the sound of the horns with that wide vibrato in those old Mravinsky recordings (and others from the Soviet period). Sure, it was unusual and probably not stylistically “correct” in a lot of repertoire but it was colorfully expressive and very distinctive. Something which I miss these days that most orchestras sound more similar to each other and many of these national schools and local characteristics have yielded to a more globalized sound.

      One of my all-time favorite moments of recorded orchestral music is in the live Mravinsky recording of the second suite from Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet before parting” where at the climax, the horns scream out their parts in desperate FFF – and with vibrato on top of that! Sure, it’s not a very polished sound and it’s a little out of tune, too, but it’s very intense and spinetingling.

  4. Louis Blois says:

    Among prominent flautists of the Soviet era, the name Alexander Korneyev (1930-2010), who is well represented on Melodiya as both flautist and conductor, should be mentioned. The flute concertos of Weinberg, Taktakishvili, Gordeli, among others, were dedicated to him and which he premiered and recorded. More about Korneyev here:

  5. Thank you for these links. I am enjoying them; many are new discoveries for me.

  6. John Kelly says:

    Can we then also assert that the “brass sound” Shostakovitch had in mind was the braying herd of the Leningrad Phil (best heard in the live recordings by Mravinsky)? I suspect we can, and it is long gone…………….maybe for the better, but it was darn exciting………….

    To me this performance is actually rather good, if anything, it’s the flautist’s audible breaks for breath which manifest her less than greatness………………..Kincaid in Philly remains the pearl beyond price in this music, and he played with a considerable vibrato for the 78s he made with Stoki, though moderated it later under Ormandy. Mind you, Stokowski’s Faun was an incendiary perfumed lush romantic trip to the nether regions of the Poem of Ecstasy……………Ormandy’s was a bit duller frankly.

an ArtsJournal blog