BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg on the music that has shaped his life

He's known on TV screens and airwaves as the BBC's man on the ground in Russia, but Steve Rosenberg has been delighting his Twitter followers with piano tributes. We sit down with him to discuss his favourite pieces of classical music

Published: March 3, 2022 at 10:33 am

Born and brought up in London, Steve Rosenberg moved to Moscow in 1991 to teach English. He then entered journalism and held several posts in the Russian capital before being appointed the BBC Moscow correspondent in 2003 – a position he later returned to after four years as the BBC Berlin correspondent. A talented pianist, he has his own improvisatory style and performs musical tributes on radio, TV and on his Twitter feed.

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We had a grand piano at our home in Chingford which I started learning to play when I was six or seven. I used to play duets with my mother, and hearing Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances reminds me of the moment I realised playing music collectively was fun. I was encouraged to take up a second instrument at school but there wasn’t much choice. I started on the mellophone. Then a tuba became available, but it was bigger than I was and I had to wheel it around on a trolley! One day the wheels tripped up a teacher and the tuba collapsed on top of her. I gave it up shortly after.

Recommended recording:

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46
Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon 449 5502

Piano was my hobby and I passed Grade 8, but I was more passionate about wanting to work in broadcasting. I spent my childhood glued to the TV and used to write in to the BBC. When I was 11, I even sent in a song I had composed about the Corporation. I fell in love with the Russian language through a BBC Russian course which was shown, with stunningly bad timing, as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. I went on to study Russian at Leeds University and I ended up living and working in Russia.

In the 1990s I discovered Victor Borge – a brilliant pianist and comedian who taught me it was OK to laugh and have fun when talking about music. A good example is his routine A Mozart Opera, where he played all the parts in a made-up opera. It showed how music can bring light into a dark world, and that’s why I like to bring music into my reporting. Once, after an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader invited me to try out his piano. I played some Russian folk songs and he started singing his late wife’s favourite song. It was such a moving experience. In those ten musical minutes I learnt more about Gorbachev the man than in a 45-minute political interview. I’ve also composed a theme tune for my Twitter series about my neighbourhood paper-seller, Valentina. Our conversations allow me to highlight aspects of everyday Russian life that are not always possible to include in regular reports. They show the side of the Russian character I first fell in love with.

Recommended recording:

A Mozart Opera by Borge
Sony G010001222314F

Another great love is the Eurovision Song Contest. When I hear Charpentier’s Te Deum, the Eurovision anthem, it takes me back to those childhood nights when I was allowed to stay up late to watch the show. I can play from memory 300 Eurovision classics: less a talent, perhaps, and more a medical condition!

Recommended recording:

Charpentier: Te Deum – Prélude
Orchestre de Chambre des Concerts Pasdeloup/Louis Martini
Warner Classics 9029584645

One thing I miss in the world of television today is the brilliant start-up music of the old regional ITV stations. Thames Television’s Salute to Thames by Johnny Hawksworth is a fantastic piece in its own right. From my Twitter feed, you can see I like to experiment by playing theme tunes, such as The Archers or Neighbours, in the style of Russian composers. Speaking of tweets, I’ve also composed a work based on a photograph of birds sitting on telephone wires that look like notes on a stave.

Recommended recording:

Johnny Hawksworth: Salute to Thames
Classic Television and Radio Themes

Of course, I love Russian music, whether it’s popular, folksong or classical, and my last choice is Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in F sharp minor. Vladimir Sofronitsky performed this during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Artillery shells were falling, while inside the concert hall the temperature was minus three and Sofronitsky played in mittens. It’s a reflection of the Russian character and spirit – overcoming adversity and fighting on. I’ve witnessed so much here over 30 years, including wars and revolutions across the former USSR. Music is a release. I am able to come home from work, close the door, sit at the piano and disappear into a musical world.

Recommended recording:

Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3
Vladimir Sofronitsky (piano)
MVE SCDL15749

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Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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