English profiles

Lille, 5 July 2003

When I arrived, Elena Kushnerova was rehearsing in the beautiful hall Eduard Lalo of the Conservatoire de Lille, a hall in Napoleaon III style (I have been told one of the two halls with some of the most remarkable acoustics in France, the other being the hall of the Old Conservatoire de Paris), admirably restored after it was completely destroyed in a fire.
It is always fascinating to hear an artist rehearse, move from one fragment to the other and not necessarily play the whole works to be performed in concert. Elena moved from Beethoven’s Variations on a theme of Salieri via Brahms’s opus 116 to Pétrouchka, where she astonished a few people wo were present in the hall when she played the glissando in the Danse russe with the thumb of the right hand (Her explanation for this was as simple as it was effective: “All the tips of my fingers were sore, so I had to ....”).

The first thing she said after she finished practising was that she quite liked the Yamaha piano of the Hall, which was however replaced by a Steinway D rented for this recital shortly afterwards. She seemed quite relieved when she heard the interview could be held in German. We moved to another room, where Elena replied with kindness to my questions. During the interview, Dmitry Garanin (Elena’s husband), Loic Serrurier and Denis Simandy (both involved in the festival Clef de Soleil as président de l’association and directeur artistique) and Charles Couineau ( a friend of Loic and myself) were present.

Willem Boone (WB): Concerning tonight’s programme, how do you “compose”a recital?

Elena Kushnerova (EK): It is difficult to compose a recital programme if it is not to be a single composer programme, sometimes I really suffer from it. I try to set up a diverse yet coherent programme, thus it is important to find relations between separate works concerning their keys, moods, etc. It should be a constellation of known and lesser known pieces. In Germany at least part of a recital is desired to be Russian, I understand why it happens.

WB: Is the current programme purely your choice or have you been asked to play certain pieces?

EK: Loic requested that I play the 7th Sonata by Prokofiev or Pétrouchka, works by Moussorgsky as less known, one contemporary piece (Lokshin), besides he wished both books of the Paganini Variations! I said that both books would have been too much. In general, the first part of the recital had to be “normal”, that is, consisting of German works (e.g Beethoven or Brahms) since I live there now.
That’s why I play both of them during tonight’s recital. I start with variations by Beethoven on a theme by Salieri that are seldom performed. I used to play them when I was young and at that time, I found them very easy. Now I realize that it is not so. The Fantasies opus 116 by Brahms are well known, yet rarely played. I recently recorded them in Munich and now I understand why relatively few pianists play them in concert. Contrary to the Paganini Variations, they do not call for a particularly virtuoso technique. These are very profound pieces that request a lot of strength and depth from a performer and are not easy for a listener. Actually, I am almost exhausted after opus 116 and I start playing the Paganini Variations afterwards with relief! However, I do ask myself why so few pianists play these pieces, they are so beautiful!

WB: Are there nowadays compositions you can’t play, because they are not accepted? Claudio Arrau said something very interesting in the book “Conversations with Arrau”by Joseph Horowitz, for instance that the Schumann Concerto in the 1930’s or 40’s meant “suicide”

EK: Yes, a lot of musis is not being accepted. You wil be amazed to learn that it is even difficult to play Bach in Germany! Once when I wanted to play a French Suite, I was told his music “belongs in a church” or that it is “too serious’, “too difficult to listen to” or “It’s no real music”. This happens everywhere in Germany. Only twice, in Baden Baden in 2000 and during the Bach Festival in Ansbach in 2001, I finally got the chance to play Bach in recitals! I have suggested more than once the Variations Brillantes by Glinka, but mostly people reply they don’t want to hear it, because they don’t know it. Well, I have already managed to insert this work into a couple of programmes. In 2004, the 200-year Glinka’s anniversary will be celebrated, so I expect to be able to play it more. As far as Russian music is concerned, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov are usually accepted, Prokofiev not always and Scriabin even less.

WB: Are you often asked to play Russian works? Is it kind of a specialty of yours?

EK: I understand that concert organizers expect Russian repertoire from me, why should I play Beethoven when I am Russian? We actually play relatively little Russian music during our training in Russia, I played more Bach, Beethoven and Schumann. For instance, it was in Europe where I played Tschaikofsky’s complete cycle The Seasons, not in Russia.

WB: Are the Paganini Variations among the most difficult works in the repertoire?

EK: Sure! There are many difficult works but this is definitely one of them. The 2nd book that I play tonight is easier for me than the 1st one.
My hands are not big enough to play sixths with the left hand in the first book confortably. But I played it on this year’s Japan tour and listeners did not notice it anyway! In Pétrouchka, there are passages that are almost impossible to play, it is more difficult for me than the Paganini Variations!

WB: You will play piano works by Mussorgsky tonight, has he written many pieces other than the Pictures?

EK: I recorded 14 piano compositions, i.e all his original pieces for piano. Mussorgsky left a lot of music unfinished, not only for piano, but also orchestral scores, some of which were completed by Rimsky Korsakov. Rachmaninov has transcribed Gopak, but the original version is better! I have never heard the pieces I’ll play tonight to be performed even in Russia, not to speak about Europe.

WB: It has been said that Mussorgsky’s piano works are unpianistic, is that true?

EK: Yes, that’s correct! They are very unconfortable and not well written for the piano, unlike Chopin and Liszt. His music is also difficult to memorize, but it has a lot of charm.

WB: Do you know any other works that are unpianistic?

EK: I’d say that Brahms’s 1st Piano Concerto and Franck’s Prélude, Choral and Fugue are not very pianistic either!

WB: What about Dvorak’s Piano Concerto?

EK: I don’t play it, can’t comment on that.

WB: Concerning the work of Lokshin that has been dedicated to you, how does it work when a composer writes especially for you, can you more or less request what you “want’?

EK: No, it was the other way around. He was a very good pianist and he happened to know me.He heard me play Liszt’s Feux Follets. Although, it is one of the most taxing pieces, I have an affinity to it. Lokshin used technical patterns from Feux Follets, e.g double notes. He also liked my interpretation of Reflets dans l’eau. I didn’t give him a brief, I only said: “I’d like to have some nice music, but please not with wide chords!” (Elena demonstrates excerpts from the Liszt Sonata with chords that exceed her hand span, although she manages to play them correctly!)

WB: Did he speak to you about his progress?

EK: No, he didn’t. It was composed during a few days. I read through the handwritten score and it looked beautiful and very natural. It was impossible to change anything in this music.

WB: Was the piece up against your expectations?

EK: When I received the final version, I was scared and thought: “I won’t be able to play this!”. However, I was already familiar with his symphonies and I noticed that his piano music is also very “logical”and very well written for the instrument. It took me in fact a very short time to learn the music.

WB: How do you rate Pétrouchka: as a wholly pianistic composition or still as ( a transcription of) an orchestral score?

EK: It is definitely a transcription of an orchestral piece and not a pianistic composition. I have always loved to dance and I see the choreography while I play.

WB: What do you think of your colleague Nelson Freire who said: “I don’t like to play it, because it is too percussive, you really have to bang the piano”?

EK: You shouldn’t slam the piano. It is true that Pétrouchka requires a different sound, but it is still “sound” you have to produce! I have often said that Pétrouchka is too difficult and that I won’t play it any longer, but I still do.... I am always very careful while practicing Pétrouchka since it can be very dangerous for the hands. And you know, the audience ‘forgets”the other pieces in a recital if you play Pétrouchka at the end. The same goes for the 7th Sonata by Prokofiev. Once, I gave a recital with Scarlatti Sonatas, Schumann Symphonic Etudes (including the posthumous Etudes), Debussy Pour le Piano, Ravel Pavane, 2 Poemes by Scriabin and I finished with Prokofiev 7th. The audience was only raving about the Prokofiev, it was  real “hit”. Sometimes I ask myself: “Why bother to compose a coherent programme if that’s all they remember?”

WB: Forgive me this question, but you are actually the first woman I hear in Pétrouchka, do you think women can play the same repertoire as men?

EK: Nowadays everybody plays Pétrouchka, even Japanese women with tiny hands! But 20 years ago I was the only one! When I studied it, professors said:”Why do you want to play this?”and when they saw I was able to play it, they asked me: “Why do you play it so loudly?”. You need an enormous power, so from that I conclude it is a piece for men. If I were a man, I wouldn’t need so much strength. It is unfair, when you don’t play loud enough, people say: “She can’t play it”. Only a few great pianists, such as Yudina, Hess or Argerich could elevate on the men’s level. They have very distinctive personalities plus a lot of physical strength.

WB: In the biography of yours, I read you are a “Steinway artist”, what does that mean? That you exclusively play on Steinways?

EK: I prefer to play on Steinways. They did me the favour to include me in a list of Steinway artists. It doesn’t mean that I can’t play on other pianos. One of the conditions is to possess a Steinway, which I couldn’t afford until one year ago. They are arranging concert tours and master classes for me in Japan that helps to promote Steinway and compete with Kawai and Yamaha. The cooperation with Steinway is very important for me, because I really need more concerts.

WB: You have your own website, on which MP3’s can be downloaded, do you mind this happens? (opposed to commercially available CD’s?).

EK: Yes, it does bother me, because I don’t like my own recordings.

WB: Do you think classical artists need marketing and active PR?

EK: Big names like Sokolov probably don’t need it, but I don’t have a normal career! Thanks to the internet, I have got this contract in Japan. However, I didn’t want my husband to upload recordings on the web and I wanted him to remove everything...

WB: But you have benefited from it, haven’t you?

EK: Astonishingly, yes!

WB: Who is your favourite pianist?

EK: I don’t have idols and I don’t want to be like anybody. Yet I admire many pianists for different reasons, their affinity to myself playing no role at all! For instance I understand well what Rubinstein is doing and I usually agree with him; with Horowitz, I don’t always understand particularly well what he does and why, still his playing impresses me greatly! With Gould, his approach to Bach is quite similar to mine but I have a hard time understanding his interpretations of other composers. When I heard his Bach for the first time, it almost drove me mad, it was even more extreme than my own Bach playing! Pletniev is one of the relatively new pianists who is outstanding. There is however something strange about him; he has no apparent temperament, but a very strong personality and intellect. His interpretations are original and absolutely different from those of all known great pianists and that makes him great, too. Argerich is another artist whom I understand well. I used to have a tape with her legendary performance of the Liszt Sonata and on the other side mine. Some people who listened to them were unable to tell whether it was Martha or me who played!

She remained an intuitive and impulsive artist and she was celebrated everywhere for her impulsive nature, whereas I was criticized for this during my studies in Russia. I developed under pressure in the direction of a stronger intellectual control, depth and refinement, so that now I differ from Martha.
Gilels was another outstanding pianist with his own distinctive sound.
His interpretations were simple and sincere. He was becoming more and more spiritual every year until his death. I have got the impression that Gilels was simply a medium connected to the sky.

WB: Is there someone with whom you’d love to perform?

EK: Misha Maisky, because I think we could understand well each other. Maybe with Argerich on two pianos... (hesitates), that would be nice! Of the musicians who passed away, I would have loved to play with Menuhin or Heifetz. I love to play chamber music, e.g piano quartets and quintets.

WB: What do you like most about this job?

EK: Nothing.... (laughs). I like the feeling after a concert when it went well. Sometimes, it happens that everything works out the way you want, that is pure happiness! On the other hand, when things don’t work out, I feel horrible afterwards. I really suffer from it during weeks, I can’t sleep... Before a concert, I can feel terrible and ask myself: “Why is someone doing things like this?. I also wonder at times why there are so many musicians, whilst there is no job that is more demanding! I realize that this is different for me, I was programmed to be a musician by my mother, there was no other choice. On the other side, my progress was very fast and easy, I felt a lot of force and talent in me.

WB: My last question is maybe a strange one, but it is something that has always intrigued me, do you “think”something when you are playing?

EK: It varies a lot. It happens that you think of nothing at all, which is probably the best thing, you only feel the music. It also happens that stupid thoughts come to your mind, thoughts that are useless. During a tour, say the 4rth concert, I sometimes don’t think any more, which is not necessarily a good thing. It’s so difficult, because you need to be both very concentrated and very relaxed at the same time!

After the concert, I had the privilege to have dinner with the artist and the organizers of the festival. I can only say, after the discussion I had with Elena, that I feel sorry that her career in Europe hasn’t expanded the way it should have. She deserves a career that does full justice to her talent and mastery. This is partly due to the fact that she has no dedicated support and professional management that any artist needs. It is my sincere wish that whoever reads this interview and feels compelled to approach this sympathetic and gifted artist will do so without hesitations!

© Willem Boone 2003