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Nikolayeva was born in Bezhitsa (now part of Bryansk) in the Bryansk district on May 4, 1924. Her mother was a professional pianist and studied at the Moscow Conservatory under the renowned pedagogue Alexander Goldenweiser (whose other students included Grigory Ginzburg, Samuil Feinberg, Dimitri Bashkirov and Lazar Berman), and her father was an amateur violinist and cellist. She studied piano from the age of three and was composing by age twelve. At thirteen, she entered the Moscow Conservatory, studying with Goldenweiser and Evgeny Golubev. Goldenweiser, who had been friends with Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Medtner, stressed the need to develop the highest proficiency in contrapuntal playing. Nilkolayeva graduated in 1948.
After graduation, she studied composition with Golubev. During this time, she wrote a cantata, Pesn o schastye (Song about Happiness), and two piano concertos. The first concerto, in B major, was recorded with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under the conductor Kirill Kondrashin.
In 1950 Nikolayeva gained prominence by winning the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition, part of the bicentennial marking Bach's death. More importantly, she met Dmitri Shostakovich at the competition, leading to a lifelong friendship, and was chosen as a first performer of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues. Nikolayeva made three complete recordings of the cycle.
In 1959 Nikolayeva became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, later becoming professor in 1965. She made over 50 recordings during her career, notably keyboard works by Bach, including his Art of Fugue, and by Beethoven, but only became widely known in the West late in life. With the fall of Communism, she found herself in demand internationally, making several concert tours to Europe and the United States. She also sat as a jury member on many international competitions, including the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1984 and 1987. One of her best known recordings is her own transcription of Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, which was released by RCA Victor in Japan. She was known to have had an immense repertoire, and many enthusiasts await the reissue of much of her Melodiya back-catalog.
A teacher for over four decades, Nikolayeva taught many prominent pianists and worked closely with the young Nikolai Lugansky, who went on to great international acclaim.
Her third recording of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues won the 1991 Gramophone award in the instrumental category.
On November 13, 1993, while playing the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues at a concert in San Francisco, Nikolayeva was stricken by a cerebral haemorrhage and was unable to complete the performance. She died nine days later, on November 22. (Some sources incorrectly state that she died on November 13.)
Complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle