English profiles

Lugano, 19 July 2003

I asked Lilya Zilberstein at the second edition of the Martha Argerich festival in Lugano, when I met her backstage, just after I congratulated the wonderful young French cellist Gautier Capuçon with his performance of the Grieg Sonata. She responded in a very friendly and willing way to set a time for an interview on Friday 20 June at 4.00 p.m at the RSI studio.
I noticed that it wasn’t very hard to get in (The receptionist let me in after I told him in my very approximative Italian that I was looking for Lilya Zilberstein, the pianist!). She smiled at me when she came in and said: “Ah, you managed to get in”. We got the key of the room where she normally practices and spoke for about an hour. She proved a friendly and witty conversation partner.

Willem Boone (WB): What is the most important thing you have learnt during your training in Russia?

Lilya Zilberstein (LZ): I went to a special music school in Russia and the most important thing I learnt there was disciplin. I notice nowadays that I am quite disciplined: yesterday (Thursday 19 June, WB) was a day off in Switzerland, I went to the RSI-studio and practiced from 10 a.m until 6. p.m It’s my profession. My children also play music, the oldest one is 12 years old. He plays the piano.

WB: Were you always motivated when you were that young?

LZ: Yes, I think so.

WB: If you were to judge your own playing, would you say that there is a specific Russian element in it? If so, which one?

LZ: People say there is indeed a Russian school. In Russia, I have learnt about piano playing, theory and history of music and harmonics, but I couldn’t describe if there is anything specifically Russian in my playing. The only thing that counts is whether you are playing well and it doesn’t matter where you come from!

WB: The fist time I heard you live (December 1991 in Amsterdam, WB), I was struck by the intimacy (“Innigkeit”as the Germans say) of your playing in the Brahms Intermezzi opus 117. Did your teachers pay special attention to that?

LZ: No, I think it’s just a quality of my playing (laughs)

WB: Do you notice a difference in teaching methods between Russia and Western Europe?

LZ: Not really, no. Either people teach well or they don’t....

WB: You have recorded several times rather unfamiliar repertoire, e.g pieces by Medtner. I also saw a recent disc of works by Clementi on the Hänssler label. How did you discover these unknown scores?

LZ: In Russia, Medtner is played quite often, my teacher told me about his music. He is often considered as “second class Rachmaninoff”, but that is not fair. Medtner is simply “first class Medtner”!
As to Clementi, students play his music frequently in Italy. I found a few pieces of his in Torino (among others the Capriccio), that was an opening. I learnt two of his sonatas and got to know his music better. I always try to programme new music I have recently studied. There are some cliches about the music of Clementi, people tend to say it is too simple, e.g. because there are too many Alberti basses, but that is not true! I have suggested several times to agents to play his music in Italy. When people complain about his music, I ask them to listen to my CD and comment on the music after they heard it.

WB: Quite recently, you recorded a rather peculiar version of Brahms’s 1st Piano concerto in a four hand version (with Cord Garben). Why did you choose to record this transcription when there are so many performances of the original version available?

LZ: Cord Garben found this version, where solo and orchestral parts are mixed. I have always had problems with this concerto, since I don’t manage to play all of the octave trills in the 1st movement. I have always wished to play this piece, but didn’t want to do it in the simplified version. This one is an arrangement for one piano and this was my chance to play it!

WB: Do you try to learn a great number of new pieces all the time?

LZ: Yes, I try to do that, but there is something of a paradox. You can’t record certain things like the Beethoven sonatas any more, because they are too well known. On the other hand, you can’t record Clementi either, because he is not well known enough.. In my recitals, I alwasy try to combine famous and unknown music. I recently managed in Turino to play 45 minutes of Clementi in the first part of the concert, in the second part, I play either Rachmaninoff or Brahms. When I finished the Clementi pieces, I saw people in the audience smiling, because they had really enjoyed the music!

WB: Can you easily learn new pieces? Can you for instance learn in a train or an air plane?

LZ: Usually, I learn quite easily, but I need to concentrate. Only once, I learnt a composition without a piano, Chopin’s 1st Ballade. In general, I think it is not necessary to learn without instrument.

WB: You have quite small hands and so have Martha Argerich, Alicia de Larrocha and Maria Joao Pires. The latter said she couldn’t play Brahms since her hands were too small, yet you seem to play Brahms, Moussorgsky, Rachmaninoff.. Is it true that all depends on the span between your thumb and your index? Or is it true what Shura Cherkassky once said, that it doesn’t play a role at all?

LZ: My hands aren’t that small! Kissin has the same size of hands, whereas he is much taller than I am! (she shows the span between her fingers and it is indeed considerable!). The most important thing is not the span of your hands, but how you feel and think about music...

WB: You have performed Rachmaninoff’s notorious Third Piano Concerto, could you play all the chords?

LZ: I try and if I don’t manage, I play the appogiatura.

WB: What is the most difficult work you have ever tackled?

LZ: First of all, every piece has its own difficulties. Up till ten years ago, I would have said Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto or the Brahms Paganini Variations, but I have played them for more than 10 years now, I have them in my fingers. Of course, they are still “difficult’, but from a different point of view. In the Rachmaninoff concerto for instance, I find it more difficult to build up the climaxes in the right manner.

WB: I have heard that Moussorsgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are “unpianistic”, is that true for you?

LZ: Technically, they are not that difficult to play, but it is very difficult to “picture”the paintings and play with the right imagination. The pictures are difficult (laughs)

WB: You have played concerts with Martha Argerich in recent years, what is it like to play with her? Is she indeed as unpredictable as you sometimes read and is it true for her music making that she never plays anything the same twice like Horowitz?

LZ: It is very exciting to play with her. It’s true that she she never plays the same way twice, although she tries too! In 2000, we played two concerts in Saint Denis and Ludwigsburg. The last concert was recorded and I got a CD of it. Last year, we played in Bolzano, I gave the CD to Martha and noticed she was listening extensively. I asked her why she did and she said that it was a tape of a concert that took place two years ago. She said she was studying her own interpretation and wanted to know what she did at the time. Maybe she wanted to recreate the same atmosphere. Yes, she is unpredictable, but in a good way. I hope I am unpredictable too, so we should be, artists shouldn’t play like machines.

WB: How did you get to know her? Did she approach you?

LZ: I first met her in Hamburg many years ago, when she played with Gidon Kremer. I went to see her afterwards, then met her again in Norway in the chamber music festival in Stavanger, back in August 1999. The last evening, we played the 6 pieces for four hands opus 11 by Rachmaninov and Ma mère l’oie by Ravel during a gala concert. After that, Martha said she would like to play more often four hand music with me and we talked about pieces by Mozart (K 381), Ravel and Rachmaninov. I realized that we were both very busy, but the day after the last concert, our manager, Jacques Thélen, came up with two dates for 2000 and that’s how it started.

WB: Were you intimidated to play with someone who is that famous?

LZ: No, it wasn’t intimidating. We are colleagues, she has her reputation and I have mine. Maybe I would have been more intimidated ten years ago. By the way, she doesn’t behave like a star, she is very friendly.

WB: You don’t hear these pieces by Rachmaninov very often!

LZ: No, Martha told me she didn’t know them either until we studied them. Last time she said she likes them more and more.

WB: The other day, Martha and yourself replaced Radu Lupu in Paris (23 May 2003), how does that work, do the two of you play on a regular basis?

LZ: We got a phone call, only eight days before, I was in the USA at that time and Martha was in Japan. She arrived only one day before the Paris concert and was making fun about it: “Look at me, I just arrived from Japan!”. It is difficult though, since we are both fully booked. When it happens, it happens. We have now played five concerts in one month, which should be a record!

WB:Are the two of you preparing new repertoire like the Sonata for 2 pianos by Mozart that was announced on the door of the Théâtre du Châtelet?(and replaced by the four hand sonata K 381, WB)

LZ: That was a mistake. We have talked about new repertoire, e.g the Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms and maybe the Mozart 2 piano sonata.

WB: What do you like most about Martha?

LZ: O well.... again, it’s exciting to play with her.She has a fantastic sound!

WB: Does she speak about repertoire with you?

LZ: No, we don’t have that much time to talk anyway... When we travelled to Ludwigsburg by train, we spoke about our children. She knows mine and even heard my oldest son play the Polka Italienne by Rachmaninov in Stavanger.

WB: Is this kind of residential festival in Lugano more relaxed for you since you can stay for a longer period, play with friends and have a nice alternation of chamber music, recitals and orchestral music?

LZ: It’s different from other concerts. Last year was very intensive and tiring: I had to rehearse a lot for Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata with Gautier Capuçon, Mozart’s Double Concerto with Gabriela Montero, a Dvorak Trio... This year was easier, as the festival was spread over two weeks, I mainly played in the first week with one concert on the final day of the second week, which left me more time to practice and go to other performances.

WB: Last year, you played among other things the beautiful Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov with the gifted Gautier Capuçon. Who decided with whom you were going to play?

LZ: Jurg Grand put us together, he set up the first and the second edition of the Lugano festival (He passed away in February 2003, WB). It was the first time I played with Gautier. I don’t play chamber music very often, sometimes in special festivals, as the one in Stavanger or in Delft (The Netherlands). In two weeks, I will play at the Lockenhaus Festival, not with Kremer though... (Later on, when Lilya called me to discuss the text of this interview, she told me that after all, she played the 2nd movement of the Strauss Violin Sonata with Kremer during a special Strauss evening concert, this was decided at the last minute, WB).

WB: What do you think of this festival?

LZ: It is very intensive. Last I year, I felt I wasn’t well prepared, because I had concerts the week before in Dallas. I had one week left, but lost a lot of time with flights. It was very stressfull. After my last concerts, I didn’t want to listen to music for a while.

WB: Did you attend the concert of Argerich and Pletnev with the Cinderella transcription?

LZ: Of course!

WB: How did you like it?

LZ: It was fantastic!

WB: Do you think the score was indeed that terribly difficult?

LZ: I think so. Martha mentioned the whole week she had to work hard and since she seldom finds anything difficult....

WB:What are your plans for the future?

LZ: My future will be like my past with a lot of concerts (laughs)

WB: Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to?

LZ: Next year, I will play in three evenings the complete works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninov with the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker in Stuttgart and Munich.

WB: That is quite a challenge!

LZ: Well, I played all of them already....

WB: Maybe this is a strange question, but could you remember the best piano you have ever played on?

LZ: That’s difficult to answer...

WB: Have you never played on a piano about which you’d say: “I wish I could take it home”?

LZ: That would be the one I have home now! That is quite a funny story: when I moved to Germany,I had no piano. My husband and I lived in a small appartment in Hamburg and the contract stipulated that I couldn’t practice on the piano at home. That’s why I got an electronic piano, a Clavinova. At that time, I was supposed to play some concerts with the violonist Gil Shaham. We were also supposed to record for Deutsche Gramophon, but that eventually didn’t work out. I told Shaham that we couldn’t practice at my place since I didn’t have a decent piano, therefore I called Steinway and asked them if we could practice elsewhere. They pointed me to a hotel, Die vier Jahreszeiten, where they had a grand piano in the bar. After the rehearsal, I told my husband that it had been such a great piano to play on. Some months later, I got a phone call whether I could play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado. I called Steinway again and told them I urgently needed tofind a grand piano. First I had to go to Italy for some concerts, but then they called me and said they found a piano. I was taken to the same hotel again and they sold me the piano I had liked so much. We happened to move to a house and that’s why I could have a piano. It was a Steinway A and I still have it, although I now also have a Steinway B.

 © Willem Boone 2003