*20 XI 1913 Odessa, †27 VI 1976 Moskwa
Yakov Zak – 1st Prize winner, 3rd International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (1937). Yakov Zak began his piano studies with Maria Starkova at the Odessa Conservatoire. She shaped the talented student musically as well as developed his piano technique. He graduated from the Conservatoire at the age of 19 (1932), and gave his first public recital at the age of 15 – performing works by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin and Débussy.
In 1932, Zak was enrolled to complete his studies under Henry Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatoire, which he graduated from in 1935. As a result of Neuhaus’ serious illness during the 1933/34 academic year, Zak frequently joined Prof. Konstantin Igumnov’s classes.
In 1935, Zak took part in the 2nd All-Soviet Musical Performance Competition in Moscow, where he took 3rd Prize. Two years later (1937), he came to Warsaw to take part in the 3rd Chopin Competition. He prepared for the competition individually, occasionally consulting with Neuhaus. Fortune smiled upon him. After the two-stage competition he was granted 1st Prize and the Polish Radio award, in the form of a silver mask of Chopin, for the best mazurka performance.
At the Warsaw Competition, Zak drew attention to himself already at his first appearance. Professor Karol Stromenger wrote in the press:
“On the sixth day [of the competition], the Russian pianist Yakov Zak pulled to the fore. It seemed as though the piano suddenly blossomed with a lively and crisp tone. The instrument gained vividness, a beautiful sound flooded the hall. [...] Particularly wonderful was the performance of the A minor Etude No. 2 from Op. 10, [which was played] in an almost glissando tempo, with an astounding evenness. With all its finesse, the mazurka was rendered with simplicity.”
In the post-competition report of Professor Piotr Rytel, himself a major pianist and composer, Zak’s playing was thus described:
“A beautiful victory and triumph [...]. Mazurkas, Chopin’s most Polish compositions, were best understood, felt and played by Mr. Zak. [...]. One cannot fail to be impressed and – to be honest – delighted by what Mr. Zak’s fingers do, their perfection, not found in other pianists who may even surpass Zak in talent. With that perfection, that absolute ease [...] Zak defeated everyone – in the opinion of the jurors and the majority of the public”.
From the moment of his Warsaw triumph, Zak developed his concert career on a grand scale. He appeared throughout Russia, and following World War II toured many European countries (England, Holland, Belgium, France, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland) as well as North and South America (Canada, the US, Brazil)
Zak was a universal pianist: he was a great interpreter of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt but also of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Débussy, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich. Due to the exceptional ease with which he learnt new pieces and his ability to delve into their sense and meaning, Zak was often chosen as a first performer by contemporary composers, such as Golubev, Levitan and Kabalevsky. For several years Zak formed a piano duet with fellow pianist Emil Gilels.
Yakov Zak is today acknowledged as one the outstanding pianists of the century.
He left a few records, including works of Chopin (Impromptus, Mazurkas, Nocturnes and Waltzes), Liszt, Prokofiev (Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor), Rachmaninov (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), Ravel (Piano Concerto in G major), Richard Strauss (Burlesque) and Shostakovich (Preludes and Fugues).
Aside from his virtuoso career, Zak was also active as a teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire, initially as assistant to Henry Neuhaus (from 1935) and later as piano professor (from 1947); from 1965 he was also Head of the Piano Department.
His students included Yevgeny Mogilevsky, Valery Afanassiev, Nikolai Petrov and Lubov Timofeyeva.
Zak sat in the jury of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1955 and 1960.
Recorded in 1949-50s