Nijmegen, 19 April 2009
Eliso Virsaladze may not be a house hold name, but she has been around for about 50 years. She has a reputation both as a virtuoso and a sought after teacher and frequently appears with the cellist Natalia Gutman. And Sviatoslav Richter called her the best Schumann player alive. I read a few times that she is known to be a rather intransigeant lady, but when I spoke to her after her performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, she was very nice and took all her time. Eventhough I interviewed her during a sponsor meeting that had been organised more or less for her, we could sit rather quietly, occasionally interrupted by people who had attended the concert and who thanked her for her playing. She told me many interesting things and she confessed being quite fond of a Dutch specialty: bitterballen!
Willem Boone (WB): You just performed the 1st Piano Concerto by Brahms and I am simply amazed by the way you played, what gives you the strength to play the way you did?
Eliso Virssaladze (EV): That’s difficult to explain, it’s partly something you do with your brain, but you also need to have a sort of inner feeling, you can’t separate these two aspects.
WB: On the site of YouTube, I read a comment that said you sound like a man when one closes his eyes. What do you think of such a statement?
EV: I do not agree. Liszt dedicated his Paganini Etudes to Clara Wieck, which means that she was a phenomenal pianist. Annie Fischer was also colossal, as was Yudina...
WB: So such comments are simply clichés?
EV: Exactly! I do not approve of qualifications like “feminine or masculine playing”. Women probably have a more lyrical approach, which is not bad....
WB: How do you feel right after your performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto?
EV: This was the best of the three performances I played, the conditions were best today. The hall is wonderful (De Vereeniging, Nijmegen, WB), the Steinway was a fresh sounding three-year-old instrument, the acoustics were good. The two other concerts were ok, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy them!
WB: How exactly do you know after a concert whether you played good or bad?
EV: The feeling is always there. You are never 100% satisfied, it probably happened only five times in my entire life that I was truly happy about my own playing, whereas I have been playing for 50 years now... Sometimes, I am very dissatisfied and disappointed about myself...
WB: Do you play differently on every occasion or is your concept more or less the same?
EV: I try to play differently, that’s why I like live recordings. They may not be perfect, but they have a lot of value. I would definitely quit performing if I always played the same way! You should never do that, because you are not a computer! I appreciate artists who are not predictable, thank god, that you play poorly from time to time!
WB: Why did you decide to play this concerto?
EV: I was asked to.
WB: Do you always play what you are asked to do?
EV: No, I frequently say “no”
WB: Why is that? Because you don’t like to play certain things for instance?
WB: So one could say you like this concerto?
EV: Yes, very much, although you can’t play it more than ten times in a row. You need a lot of inner strength, energy and concentration.
WB: But doesn’t that go for other pieces, such as Tschaikofsky’s First Piano Concerto, too?
EV: That’s another concerto I like very much, in certain countries such as Japan I am asked to play Tschaikofsky and Rachmaninov all the time.
WB: How do you consider the First Brahms Concerto: as a true Piano Concerto or as a Sinfonia Concertante?
EV: As a Sinfonia Concertante, which makes that you play it differently of course, it is another style one could say.
WB: How pianistic is Brahms? The French pianist Samson François once said that his hands were already aching at the mere mention of the name “Brahms”....
EV: He writes rather well, his style is comfortable for me, but that doesn’t mean it is easy! In the Second Piano Concerto, especially in the second and fourth movements, there are a few passages that are very awkward pianistically. I first performed the Second Piano Concerto and much later, I started to learn the First Concerto.
WB: Is one of these difficult parts the passage in the second movement, where a pianist needs to play double octaves? Does this passage frighten you?
EV: No, I am not afraid of it, but you need to find the right fingering for it!
WB: I read that Haydn is one of your favourite composers. Why do you like his music in particular?
EV: I have no favourite composers, I also love Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, but I play some composers more than others.
WB: Which ones have you tackled less often?
EV: Ravel and Debussy.
EV: I unfortunately didn’t have enough time for it.
WB: The great Sviatoslav Richter has said about your Schumann playing that you were the best Schumann pianist! You must have been pleased with such a compliment?
EV: He could be quite moody, this may have been his spontaneous feeling when he said this, but yes, of course, I greatly appreciate his opinion!
WB: What do you think of his Schumann playing?
EV: He has done a few things that are simply genius, e.g the Piano Concerto, the Etudes Symphoniques, the Allegro Appassionato (with orchestra, WB), but I actually liked everything he played.
WB: In the book by Bruno Monsaingeon, Richter wrote that he invited you to come to his place to listen to recordings. He wrote about his own recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major K 453 that you were postive, whilst he hated his own playing. How did that work, did he ask you for your opinion?
EV: I still haven’t read that book, I have been reticent, since it may be too close.. He was always very hard on himself, so one couldn’t blame him for being hard on others!
WB: How honest were you to him when his own playing was concerned?
EV: I told him, as in the case of Mozart’s Concerto K 453, that I enjoyed his reading. When I hear things I don’t like, I say nothing!
WB: Concerning Schumann, with whom do you have more in common: Florestand or Eusebius?
EV: With both, you need the alternation. When you don’t have much in common with both characters, you can’t play Schumann! You have to play the eccentric side of his music with maximum clarity, no other composer writes so often ritardandi or “noch schneller” (faster)! One should be able to follow the transitions very clearly, otherwise his music turns out to be very chaotic.
WB: Which pianists impressed you most with Schumann’s music?
EV: Annie Fischer, Maria Grinberg, Sofronitzky, Backhaus sometimes. Samuel Feinberg is unknown, but he played a wonderful Humoreske. Lipatti was great in the Piano Concerto, I like Horowitz in the Kinderszenen, among the living pianists, I would mention Lupu.
WB: I’d like to ask you another question about Richter. He had a huge repertoire, yet sometimes his decisions were difficult to understand, for instance he never played all of the Chopin Preludes and he always left out two of the eight Fantasiestücke by Schumann!
EV: There is nothing I can do about that, what can I say? He also said he would never do the Kreisleriana, since his teacher Heinrich Neuhaus had played them so well.
WB: Richter didn’t play the First Concerto by Brahms, which you just performed, either since he disliked the last movement. That is another rejection that is hard to believe...
EV: I don’t understand that either, because I like that movement very much!
WB: What was your relation to Richter? Were you friends with him?
EV: No, we weren’t friends, but it was a great honour to be able to spend some time with him. Natalia Gutman and Oleg Kagan were closer to him, although I have known Richter since my childhood.
WB: Which live performances by Richter do you remember best?
EV: Moussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the 6th and 7th Piano Sonatas by Prokofiev, Beethoven’s last Piano Sonatas and his Third Piano Concerto, Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Etudes Symphoniques, Ludis Tonalis by Hindemith, song recitals with Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and many chamber music works. The recording of the Tschaikofsky Piano Trio is simply fantastic, it’s the best performance I know of this work. The last time I was at his festival in Tours (France), I played Shostakovitsj’s Second Piano Trio with Victor Tretjakov and Natialia Gutman and Richter was sitting in the audience.
WB:Did he still play himself at the time?
EV: No, he had stopped just a month before.
WB: Do you still teach?
EV: Yes, but I am scared to tell you how long I have been doing this...
EV: Since 1967! First, I was assistant of Professor Oborin, then of Professor Zak and then I got my own students.
WB: Do you still enjoy teaching?
EV: Yes, if it doesnt’take too much of my time.
WB: I know I shouldn’t ask you this, but......
EV: You can ask me anything!
WB: I once heard that you were not very positive about a former student of yours, who is quite famous nowadays, Boris Berezovsky...
EV: That’s not true, I was neither positive nor negative. Berezovsky is a very gifted man, who has managed to have a great career. He is highly gifted for sure. A young colleague of his, Volodin, is also building up a career.
WB: I do agree with you, although I sometimes think that Berezvosky plays too often and too much. He sometimes sounds under-rehearsed...
EV: Exactly, that’s what I mean, he could play with more intensity. But I have to admit that he is always honest, he doesn’t exaggerate.
WB: You have spoken about Richter, did you know Gilels equally well?
EV: I greatly appreciated him in some compositions. Gilels plays a colossal role in my mind, as many others such as Neuhaus or Goldenweiser do. Richter was very special though, how can I say?
EV: Exactly! He was always so honest! He could have become a conductor, an actor, a producer, a painter, but he rejected all these options. He had many different talents, but he dedicated his whole life to the piano. With him, the piano became both a solo instrument, an orchestra and a singer...
WB: Not so long ago, I read on an internet forum that you never quite had the career you actually would have deserved, what do you think of this statement?
EV: Everything is very relative. Maybe I haven’t had an overnight success, but I am still around. Besides, I have had the advantage to have enough time for my own development. I hope to perform in the future as well and to develop myself even more!
WB: Brilliant Classics will shortly issue an extensive series “legendary pianists from Russia”, which does not include any recordings of yours, what does that mean to you?
EV: I haven’t heard about this, but I don’t care. Nobody can criticize myself better than I do. I have never lost control, I have never been in love with myself. And I do not need reviews.
WB: Do you never read a review that may be partly true?
EV: Yes, one time, I read a wonderful review, it was simply fantastic. This is a story I often tell my students: it was so good that I destroyed it! The critic even compared me to Rachmaninov and I thought: “This guy is insane!”
WB: Weren’t you just happy about such a huge compliment?
EV: It was flattering, but it was simply too much of a good thing! Besides, I was only 23 years old at the time. I usually don’t read reviews, sometimes my agent tells me that I have got a good review and I think: “O, that’s great!”
WB: Last year, I heard a special concert, during which you played all the Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Natalia Gutman (in Arnhem, March 2008, WB), is she one of your favourite partners?
EV: Yes, sure! We have known each other for 50 years, although we haven’t always played together. We started playing concerts at the end of the 70’s. She is a close partner, not only in music. We also played trios with her former husband, violinist Oleg Kagan. I also collaborated with the Borodin Quartett, when Kopelman played first violin. I have always been lucky with my partners.
WB: How important is music in your life?
EV: I can’t tell you how important music for me is, it is simply beyond discussion.. Music is like life itself, I can’t imagine the whole thing without music, that’s why I chose to become a musician! My grandmother who taught me my first lessons never forced me. You know, when I was young, I practiced very little. I didn’t start to practice seriously until I started to prepare myself for the Tschaikofsky Competition... I have never had a real mentor and there was a moment when my grandmother couldn’t teach or couldn’t come to my concerts any more, after she had broken one of her hips.
WB: But you studied with Heinrich Neuhaus, didn’t you?
EV: Not on a regular basis, I probably played only once a year for him. The first time I was nine years old.
WB: And did you study with Professor Zak later?
EV: I wasn’t one of his regular students, in principle I studied everything myself and learnt from my mistakes, I am grateful that I found time to deal with my shortcomings.
WB: This means that you are an incredible talent? Where did you learn your technique for instance?
EV: The ease was always there, it’s innate... In 1962, I won third prize and my father said: “When you win third prize, for me it will be as if you have won the first prize!”
WB: Did you meet Ashkenazy, when he got first prize along with John Ogdon?
EV: Yes, I did.
WB: Too bad he no longer plays the piano...
EV: Conducting is easier!
WB: Should you be able to do everything all over again, would you be a pianist again?
EV (thinks): Yes, I believe so!
At the end of the interview I told Eliso Virsaladze I would love to hear her in recital and only one month later, my wish came true! Pianist Yefim Bronfman who was supposed to play a recital in Amsterdam in the famous “Meesterpianisten” series had to cancel and was replaced by Eliso Virsaladze. She played Mozart’s Fantasy K 475 and Sonata K 457, Prokofiev’s 2nd Sonata, and Schumann’s Arabesque and Carnaval to great acclaim. (Plus three Chopin encores). She was masterful in Mozart and proved an ideal interprete in Prokofiev’s lyricism and “bite”. Moreover, she proved that Richter had been right about her Schumann playing. Especially her Carnaval was impressive with (sometimes) daringly fast tempi.