English profiles

Amsterdam, 6 August 2002

WB (=Willem Boone): You are known, among other things, for your recordings of the complete Beethoven Symphonies transcribed by Liszt. How did you proceed to play a symphony on a piano? Did you try to imitate the colours of wind instruments and strings for example?

Arnhem, 7 February 2014


Willem Boone (WB): How did the rehearsal of Tschaikofsky’s First Piano Concerto go?

Dmitri Alexeev (DA): Quite nice!

WB: Were you on the same wavelength as the conductor, Nikolai Alexeev (they are not related, WB)?

DA: I would say so. We often played together, at the end of last season we performed Brahms’s First Piano Concerto.

WB: Do you have any idea how often you have played the First Tschaikofsky Concerto?

DA: It’s difficult to say, sometimes I perform it a lot, sometimes less.

WB: It is for sure one of the most popular concertos of the repertoire, yet I have the impression that it is often considered as a tool to display virtuosity. Could one say that it is misunderstood?

DA: Yes and this is not what music should be about. Virtuosic display is something secondary.

WB: Even with a composer like Liszt?

DA: Yes, definitely. He was a great composer, he used virtuosity to compose great music, even though there are sometimes a lot of notes. He was very talented. 

WB: So, if Tschaikofsky 1st is not about virtuosity, what is it about according to you?

DA: There are a lot of lyrical and epical moments. It is a very difficult concerto and its writing is often unpianistic. I understand why Rubinstein found it difficult. Tschaikofsky’s music is often perceived as “sad’  and “depressed”, not so in the First Concerto. It’s the opposite of dark.

WB: Could you give examples of unpianistic writing?

DA: There are quite a lot of examples in all three movements, although I don’t know exactly in which bars they occur. I am not criticizing Tschaikofsky, for it is a great piece, but he didn’t write well for the piano. Every great soloist makes slight adjustments in this score. Rachmaninov was told to play this concerto in a slightly different way too, but you need the talent of Rachmaninov to do so!

WB: Is Rachmaninov’s writing more pianistic?

DA: Yes, definitely!

WB: Tschaikofsky was not known as a good pianist, how come he was able to write in such a virtuosic style?

DA: He wasn’t a violinist either, yet he wrote a wonderful violin concerto! He wasn’t a cellist either and his Rococo Variations are fantastic. Nor was he a woodwind player, yet he composed great symphonies. He was simply a fantastic composer and he knew what he was doing, that’s what counts.

WB: I once heard Lazar Berman play the original version of this score and it started with arpeggios instead of chords..

DA: Yes, he wrote arpeggios indeed and he wrote mezzo piano in the score, even though everybody plays them forte. I must say I prefer the way it’s played nowadays. You know, music leads its own life once a composer has finished a composition…

WB: Nikita Magaloff once said he regretted the first waltz theme – the tune that everybody knows – doesn’t come back later, what do you think of his assessment?

DA: For me, it does not sound like a waltz, but yes, it is strange that the most memorable moments do not come back later..

WB: This concerto has often been called “typically Russian”, do you agree? What are the “Russian” elements?

DA: I would say so. There is a lot of Russian, even Ukrainian folk music. Tschaikofsky had friends in the Ukraine. There are examples in the first movement, for instance, the beginning of the main subject, also the beginning of the finale, which is quite a well-known tune.

WB: Did you hear Van Cliburn when he won the Tschaikofsky Competition in 1958? I was told that many Russians were shocked that a non-Russian pianist won the first prize, what made his playing so memorable?

DA: Yes, I am lucky enough to tell you that I heard him and no, they were not upset that Van Cliburn won. It was an absolute sensation, something I will never forget. It is unfortunate that his further career did not develop the way it could have. People were absolutely ecstatic about his playing. Maybe the official authorities were upset, but otherwise everybody loved him. His interpretation was “different”, but then again, every great performance is “different.” Strangely enough, he was more “Russian” than most Russian pianists!

WB: In what way?

DA: In every way. We had the feeling that he belonged to us!

WB: Isn’t that the ultimate compliment for a non-Russian pianist?

DA: Absolutely!

WB: Did John Ogdon create a similar sensation in 1962?

DA: He was very different, although he too was an absolute genius. He was a fantastic musician too, but in a very different way, he had an intellectual approach to the music. It is very sad how his career ended…

WB: Can you understand that Ogdon and Ashkenazy were joint winners in 1962?

DA: They both were outstanding pianists and musicians, both in their own way. So it was not a surprise that the jury decided to have a joined First Prize.

WB: Do you also play Tschaikofsky’s Second Concerto?

DA: Yes, I do, I played it in Arnhem a few years ago.

WB: It is often considered as “weak” opposed to the First Concerto…

DA: No, it is a different concerto, but it is not “weak”. Actually, Tschaikofsky preferred it to the First Concerto, he complained in a letter: “Why does everybody like the First Concerto and not the second?” All in all, I must say I prefer the First Concerto too, but there are a lot of great moments in the first and third movements, the second movement is very beautiful, it sounds like a piano trio.

WB: Do you play it in the original version?

DA: Yes, I do.

WB: What do you think of Tschaikofsky’s solo piano works?

DA: He left a lot of piano works, I play some of them. Maybe I do not like everything, Tschaikofsky was a workaholic who wrote music every day. Not all of it is equally good, but on the whole they are worth exploring.

WB: You recorded all of Scriabin’s piano sonatas, were you asked to record these?

DA: Yes, I was and I gladly accepted. He is one of my favourite composers and I play his music often.

WB: How often do you get the opportunity to play his Sixth and Eighth sonatas for instance?

DA: I never played these two sonatas live to be honest, but I played many other pieces of his. These two sonatas are very unusual music, especially number eight is a total enigma. I was very happy to learn it, though, since I got acquainted with another world, which was very important for me.

WB: In the early sonatas the influence of Chopin is perceptible, is there anything the later sonatas have in common?

DA: In the earlier sonatas, there is some influence from Liszt too, but for the late sonatas, I would say there is not really something they have in common, no. His development was very fast, but the roots of the late works are still in his early music. He did not develop the same way as Strawinsky, who turned to neo-classical music later in his life. In Scriabin’s late works the influence of Wagner is present too, the harmonies are Wagnerian, although there are no quotations from his music.

WB: Could one say that Scriabin’s style evolved like Beethoven’s?

DA: I cannot compare, they are so different!

WB: Scriabin died young, at the end of his life he experimented with colours and sounds. Do you have any idea how his style could have evolved had he not died?

DA: Nobody knows.. His death was mysterious, people say he died because he went too far and God stopped him..

WB: Vladimir Ashkenazy once said the most difficult Scriabin was even more difficult than Islamey, is that true?

DA: Yes, that is correct.

WB: What would you consider his most difficult work?

DA: Difficult to say, the Sixth sonata is very tricky and some of his Studies are very difficult too.

WB: Vladimir Sofronitzky has been hailed for his extraordinary Scriabin, how do you rate him in this composer?

DA: I agree, he was a genius in the history of piano playing. His world was very close to Scriabin’s life, he married his daughter. I never heard him play live unfortunately.

WB: Didn’t Sofronitzky die very young too?

DA: He was sixty I believe.

WB: And what do you think of Vladimir Horowitz in Scriabin?

DA: I like him very much, but needless to say, nobody is perfect. Sofronitzky was sometimes uneven and so was Horowitz. His video of Vers la flame is fantastic!

WB: Why is the Ninth Sonata called  “Black mass”?

DA: Scriabin did not add the title, he referred to it in his letters.

WB: You made a beautiful recording of Rachmaninov’s Preludes, we have the advantage of having CDs with Rachmaninov’s playing. Would you take him as the reference?

DA: Yes, I do.

WB: He tended to play rather fast, what do you think of his tempi?

DA: First of all, it was a different time. Sometimes for us, they may seem strange, but fashion changes. It’s as if you are reading a book about the 18th century, times and characters were different. Of course, he was one of the greatest pianists.

WB: I have the feeling that his music is often misunderstood, even more so than Tschaikofsky’s. I think it is even worse, it’s often sentimentalized. How do you “desentimentalize” his music?

DA: I agree with you, and yes, it is difficult to take away the sentimentality (smiles).I do not know how to do that, but his music should not be sentimental. People mix up the notion of “emotional” and “sentimental” or they play his music in a very dry way.

WB: What do you emphasize in your interpretations of Rachmaninov: its strength or its nostalgia?

DA: That’s difficult to say, I try to express everything I know and I feel in his music and everything he put inside his music. I want to recreate what is written in the score.

WB: Was he as exact in his markings as Ravel?

DA: He was precise enough. His music has a strong improvisatory character though. Even when you play what is written, there are traces of improvisation. His markings are sometimes sort of loose, I experience the same with Chopin’s music.

WB: You won the Leeds competition in 1975, how big was the culture shock when you first played in the UK?

DA: It was a culture shock, yes, although I had played a couple of times in the West before. It was the greatest competition I won and it had a great impact.  Maybe the 1975 edition was the greatest, because Uchida came second, Schiff third and Myung Whun Chung fourth!

WB: Your colleague Bella Davidovich said people noticed her playing had become freer after she had moved to the West, did you notice something similar?

DA: I understand her point of view, but she immigrated to the United States, I never did that. Since the 90’s, I was sharing my time between London and Moscow. Of course, the overall (musical) atmosphere between both cities is very different!

WB: Do you teach?

DA: I never did, but I started a few years ago and I like it.

WB: If a student plays for you, what do you mostly pay attention to?

DA: It should be a complex of features: musicality, technique, sound, but the most important aspect is personality..

WB: You have carte blanche in Arnhem for several concerts this season, did you know right away what you wanted to choose or were some of the combinations put together for the occasion?

DA: Basically, I knew what I wanted to do, since I did similar projects in the UK. I also play chamber music on a regular basis.

WB: Next month, you will play orchestral scores by Shostakovitsj with Nikolai Demidenko, are these original transcriptions by the composer?

DA: No, they are my own. The programme will consist mostly of my transcriptions of suites for jazz orchestra and of Porgy and Bess by Gerschwin.

WB: Are you happy as a musician?

DA: Yes, I am, sometimes, I am not, but it is a wonderful world, full of great composers that I am happy to explore.

WB: What do you consider highlights in your career?

DA: There are quite a few, I would not say that there is “one” in particular. The Leeds Competition obviously was a major achievement, I also remember concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I remember performances in Philadelphia with Muti that were very memorable and something I will never forget: I had to play Beethoven Third Concerto in Russia and I was told that Emil Gilels would attend. I was shivering! Gilels was sometimes strange: he wouldn’t talk to people and ask for a ticket, he paid his own. When he was asked by musicians of the orchestra whether he liked my playing, he put up his thumbs, that was the greatest praise!

WB: Do you also have regrets?

DA: Yes, a lot! There is a lot of music that I should have played or recorded, maybe I will do so in the future..

WB: If you were to do it again, would you be a pianist again?

DA: Who knows? I know what I cannot be: physics or mathematics are not my world. It would have to be arts, literature or humanitarian things..

WB: How do you find the discipline to practise?

DA: If you love music, you should do honour to the music, and therefore, you should practise the best you can!

WB: How long can you stay away from the piano without practicing?

DA:  Approximately ten days, maybe a couple of weeks.

WB: You are not like Martha Argerich who is rumoured to sometimes stay away one month from the piano?

DA: No, I don’t stay away that long from the instrument. 




Utrecht, 24 October 2003

Although he won a major piano competition (Marguérite Long/Jacques Thibaud) in Paris in 1955, Dmitri Bashkirov is probably not best known as a concert pianist.. He suffered from the severe Soviet regime and was not allowed to travel abroad until the early 90’s. However, in the meantime, he gave many concerts in his native Russia and built a solid reputation as a teacher, who trained many famous, sometimes internationally acclaimed pianists such as Arcadi Volodos, Nikolai Demidenko and Jonathan Gilad. He currently teaches at the Queen Sofia Academy in Madrid.

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

23 September 2006

Some artists are the same in “real life” as they are on stage. Eliane Rodrigues is an example of this: she speaks with simplicity and has a gift for communication that she also shows at the piano. What is most important to her is to touch the hearts of the audience in the most sincere way...

Willem Boone (WB): I read in your biography that you already played Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 488 at the age of six, can you remember anything about that?

Eliane Rodrigues (ER): No, my first public concert was with Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major. I took part in a competition and the prize was this performance with orchestra which was broadcast on television. I played Mozart’s KV 488 shortly after, but I can’t remember much of it. I know that I loved to dance as a child, my mother was a ballerina at the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.

WB: That Mozart concerto is no easy by any means...

ER: What does “easy” mean and what does “difficult” mean? Children easily learn to speak a language and don’t realize that some things can be difficult. You use the words that suit you best. The younger you start, the better. I have been lucky with my teachers: they taught me the right technique.

WB:Even more special in your biography is that you wrote a piano method at a very early age “Eliane in the paradise of keys”. This is very unusual for a child, did you know at the time that you wanted to write a method?

ER: It wasn’t meant as a method. I started composing at a very early age, when I was three years old, but I wasn’t yet able to write down my compositions. A befriended conductor said to my mother that it was a shame that the compositions couldn’t be noted, and so he helped me by giving various exercices, for example compose a piece of music in a certain key or to write pieces with a width of an octave, etc. I played them on the piano and he wrote them down. Later all of them were collected in a method with scales, thirds, etc.

WB: Is it still being used in Brazil?

ER: I think so, but I haven’t played in Brazil for the last ten years. I have been conducting my own music festival in Switzerland, which has taken a lot of time. Besides, I didn’t want to go to Brazil without my children.

WB: We think of Brazil as being the country of the samba (among other things), but what tradition does this country have as far as classical music is concerned?

ER: There is definitely a tradition for piano with some famous artists. Compared to European standards, the situation has been pretty bad for a long time. In Europe, almost every average sized town has opportunities to experience culture, concerts and they often have their own orchestras. Unfortunately the situation is different in Brazil. People are certainly open to classical music and ballet, Brazilians are very open in general. However, art is very expensive in Brazil.

WB: You said it has an important tradition as far as pianists are concerned, but are there that many famous names? I can of course think of a few names, for instance Novaes,Tagliaferro, Freire,Cohen, Ortiz, but compared to Russia or the United States this is modest amount!

ER: No, perhaps you are right, but a few of the names you mentioned are very famous: Freire, Cohen, Ortiz (she also mentions the name of Martha Argerich, however she is native from Argentina). There are not that many famous names that graduate from the Juilliard School either.

WB: Isn’t it a bit of a cliché to claim that South American pianists always have so much temperament?

ER: I believe that every human being has temperament. The Brazilian pianists you just mentioned are very different: Freire is introvert and is different from Argerich, but they form a good duo. Cohen and Ortiz too have their own individual style.

WB: What is specifically South American about your playing?

ER: My temperament is not typically southamerican. I want to experience every emotion to the full, I am always searching for colours and sounds. If I learn a piece, I feel what is inside it and I use colours, but also variations in speed and dynamics to bring out different emotions. I am not against extremes, but I dislike circus like acts that are only used to attract attention. I always want to believe my own choices. By the way, a well written musical composition can be played in many different ways by people with different personalities! 

WB: You often play music by your fellow citizen Heitor Villa Lobos, why is this?

ER: I don’t play his music that often, I don’t want to be labeled as a specialist.

WB: What does his music mean to you?

ER: It has a lot of colours: I recognize my country in his music. In Brazil, nature is very colourful: people sing many popular tunes... When I visited the Lago Maggiore in Italy, I noticed a lot of different green colours!

WB: Is his music pianistic, because that’s what it sounds like!

ER: Yes, it’s well written for the instrument. It’s music with many different rhythms, furthermore the independence of the fingers is important to play his music well. And you have to be relaxed. Everything you are doing has to look easy and go straight to people’s hearts.

WB: Was Villa Lobos a good pianist himself?

ER: He played the cello: I don’t know whether he played the piano. I have never heard that he was a good pianist, but neither was Ravel, whereas he composed really well for piano!

WB: Do you play any music by other Brazilian composers?

ER: Yes, I also play Claudio Santoro, Lorenzo Fernandez and .. Nepomuceno.

WB: Do you often perform in Brazil?

ER: In the beginning, I used to, but when I was 19 years old, I went to Europe (Belgium) and I decided to stay there and got more concerts in Europe.

WB: Would you like to play in your home country again after so many years?

ER: Yes, I would love to, I have been asked many times, but it is difficult to organize these trips.

WB: Do you like living in Europe?

ER: In the beginning, it was very hard, because I didn’t speak the language. I was more open than other people around me and I had the impression that I scared them a little. At the conservatoire (of Antwerp, WB), I had little contacts with fellow students and if it happened, I spoke English or French. After four years, I learnt to speak Dutch.

WB: What are the differences between musical life in Europe and Brazil?

ER: There are many! You can’t compare them, there are many more concerts in Europe! It is really sad that Brazilians don’t have more money and opportunities to go to concerts, especially those people in small villages.

WB: Are there many pianos available in small cities and villages?

ER: That’s difficult to say for such a big country. I lived in Rio de Janeiro and then left for Europe.

WB: In 1983, you won fifth prize in the notorious Queen Elizabeth Competition. Many people who attented the competition disagreed and thought you deserved to win a better prize. What do you think of this decision on reflection?

ER: If I listen to the performance I played in the final round (Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, WB), I think it was a very good performance, but I thought that the Frenchman Pierre Alain Volondat, who won first prize with Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto had a very special charisma. He was a clear winner because of this charisma. As far as our playing is concerned we both fitted into the same category. I can understand that the jury must have thought at the time that I was insufficiently prepared to play to a large audience and that I wasn’t yet ready to start a career. Maybe I  also dressed too plainly and I didn’t have enough stage presence. The good thing is that my fifth prize allowed me to grow in a much more natural way, whereas it must have been especially tough for Volondat, who wasn’t prepared for a world career either (Volondat almost completely disappeared from concert stages, whereas Rodrigues is still performing after 23 years, WB). Things happened the other way around with me: I got concerts and had enough time to grow. That was just a matter of luck. I think it makes a difference which pianist the jury hears at the end, these impressions last the longest!

WB: Concerning your charisma, you come across as a positive, sunny almost innocent (in the positive meaning of the word!) who plays very naturally, almost the way another person breathes. To me you do not seem to be the type of pianist who struggles with music: do you recognize yourself in this description?

ER: Yes, I think it’s true. I find a lot of balance, hope and human warmth in music. For me it’s not a matter of showing how intelligent you are. I try to show that the world has two sides.

WB: Which sides do you mean?

ER: Pain and joy, you have to make an effort to bring out both, but I think working is good for the human spirit, regardless of whether this is at the keyboard or if it’s the job you are doing, if you do nothing, you will end up depressed.

WB: Do you think my description of you being a natural pianist is accurate?

ER: Yes, absolutely!

WB: On the other hand, you also play “difficult” music that requires a certain amount of wisdom and maturity, such as opus 111 by Beethoven or late piano pieces by Brahms. How do you go about playing such works?

ER: The same way, I try to get as near as I can to the composers intentions. Everything should be used to honour the composer in the best possible way; sound, dynamics, use of the pedal until I feel 100% what the composer wanted to express.

WB: How do you know that?

ER: You feel it! What I also find important is the feeling you have before you press the keys. Pianists often to tend to press the keys too hastily, but sometimes you need to play very gently with the keys...

(The dog jumps against the window, Rodrigues says he is “her best friend, he sits next to me when I study and stays until I finish”, I can’t resist saying that he must be a very lucky dog, “I spoilt him”Rodrigues adds).

WB: Something else that strikes me: you look quite fragile and don’t have big hands, yet you play very demanding works like Brahms Second Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, where do you get the power from that is needed to play such monsters?

ER (Looks at her hands and stretches them): My hands aren’t that small! Not really... they are elastic.. if I need to, I can play a tenth, I don’t have problems either to play fortissimo. I can prepare a huge forte or play very fast if that’s required. It is important that you know which note you want to bring out. You have to build up a forte or a pianissimo!

WB: But still, the Second Brahms Concerto, that is an enormous tour de force for any pianist, isn’t it?

ER: I don’t know, I don’t think in terms of power, you simply have it! You have to think of what you want to express and you continuously have to renew the energy. Brahms’s Second Concerto is very well written, he has a lot to say. It is like a huge mountain, if you want to climb it, you have to spread your energy and can’t let yourself get exhausted too early while asking yourself: “How can I get to the top?”

WB: Do you have a good memory?

ER: You always have to practice and make an effort until you know a piece. If I study, I immediately hear the harmonies, even in broken octaves, especially in the left hand, but sometimes also in the right hand.

WB: Does that help you to memorize the piece better?

ER: Yes, it does!

WB: What are you thinking of when you play before an audience?

ER: I always think of the message I want to bring across, it is as if I am talking.

WB: But there may be pieces you have played very often, isn’t there a danger that your mind switches off?

ER: The danger is always there, but I never play without feeling. I like to take risks, I’d rather play a note less well than play without expressing anything. By the way, I love to sing for my children and the dog when I am at home!

WB: How does that help you play the piano?

ER: You learn to express your feelings. Conducting also helped me, not only from the keyboard. I have conducted works by Bernstein and Holst and spoken a lot with trumpet players and violinists. I asked them how they played certain things and that taught me more about their instruments. I have also composed orchestral pieces.

WB: Do you have a favourite composer?

ER: That would be unfair towards other composers... I’d be sad to choose only one, there are a few. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are very great composers.. Also Chopin, Brahms, sometimes Liszst, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy...

WB: I gather you must have a soft spot for Chopin? You have been playing a Chopin afternoon concert on 26 December in the main hall of De Doelen in Rotterdam, I remember the occasion during one of your concerts when members of the audience wouldn’t stop coughing!

ER: Maybe that is because they are not used to going to concerts, but even they deserve attention. I want to bring something that is nice to them and that makes them say: “That was beautiful, I’d like to hear that again”. You know, in Mozart’s time people also went to the bathroom during the music...

WB: Which pianists do you admire?

ER: Leif Ove Andsnes has done beautiful things, Volodos too sometimes.

WB: And among the older pianists, are there any examples?

ER: Horowitz! I always like to hear what he does when I study something he has played too. He is not the only pianist I listen to: I also like Rachmaninov, Lipatti, Schabel.. With Schabel, I understand what he wanted to convey. He sometimes makes me laugh and I have the impression that he was smiling to himself whilst he played...

WB: And among your direct colleagues, what about someone like Martha Argerich?

ER: She is very interesting and always comes up with new ideas in the pieces she plays. She does beautiful things sometimes. I like to listen to her, because she’s not fake, she’s always been herself.

WB: What do you think of Alicia de Larrocha?

ER: I have never heard her live, but she seems like a very complete pianist to me. An artist should make sure that people feel safe, they listen to someone who makes them enjoy beautiful music and doesn’t cause them pain...

(Rodrigues mentions Horowitz again and enthuses) I heard him twice and he was so funny!

WB: Was he funny or did you find him funny?

ER: He was just funny! The way he entered on stage, he first looked around the corner.. The music was very simple when he played,  there was not one unnecessary movement of his body. He was like a magician with all his cards! Radu Lupu is another very great pianist, he and Horowitz compliment each other!

WB: I have a hard time with Horowitz’s rubato, don’t you think that was excessive?

ER: That doesn’t matter... That’s the way he was born and he could never have played like Lupu, that’s why he was Horowitz. It wouldn’t have worked the other way around either. We are very priviliged to have so many different pianists.

After the interview ended, Rodrigues and I speak off the record about a few things. I tell her that I liked her performance of the Third Chopin Sonata very much, hoping that she will play it on 26 December in Rotterdam during her Chopin recital (Later on, in November, she tells me that she has indeed changed her programme and that she will indeed play this sonata!). I felt very happy when she said to me “You should go on with this, you know a lot about music!”, that’s just about the best encouragement you can receive!






Rotterdam, 12 November 2006

There were several reasons I wanted to speak to Elisabeth Leonskaja. Firstly because she is an individual artist, who managed to build up a career in Western Europe after she immigrated to Vienna in 1979. Secondly, because she is not only an excellent player of Schubert and Brahms, but she also excels in taxing repertoire such as the Brahms concertos, the Liszt sonata and Moussorgsky’s Pictures. Last but not least, because she knew the great Sviatoslav Richter very well. When I approached her for an interview, she preferred not to meet on Saturday, when she was off, because she needed to practise Prokofieff’s develishly difficult 2nd Piano Concerto for an upcoming performance in New York. She therefore asked me to come on Sunday morning, three hours before her afternoon concert. Much to my relief she showed up at 11 am sharp and we went to one of the artist rooms upstairs in De Doelen of Rotterdam. She first made sure we had enough tea and then started a long interview that impressed me a lot, because of her seriousness and calm self assured attitude amongst other reasons.  It was also impressive to see that she was still visibly moved to speak about her great friend and colleague Richter....

Willem Boone (WB): A Dutch pianist who gave a pre-concert lecture about the Schumann Piano Concerto said about this piece that it is “innovative”, what do you think of this?

Elisabeth Leonskaja (EL): Sure, but what exactly did she mean?

WB: That the piano and the orchestra share the themes and sometimes the piano is part of the orchestra

EL: That was already the case with Mozart’s concertos after K 400, the piano is not a solo instrument, but it contributes to a beautiful composition. As far as the form is concerned, these concertos are indeed innovative.

WB: Your colleague also said that the last movement of the Schumann Concerto has bravura, what do you think?

EL: To a certain extent, yes. It should be played as a long waltz, whereas it is often played as march, which destroys the grace of the piece. If you a play it like a waltz, it is much more beautiful. It is a difficult movement though, since it requires a lot of “dash”and energy.

WB:Is it a pianistic concerto?

EL: There are parts that are uncomfortable pianistically speaking, for instance the cadenza.

WB: Liszt apparently didn’t want to play it any more,since it was not pianistic enough...

EL: We don’t know how he meant this,  he considered the pianistic character of a piece in terms of pure virtuosity

WB: Were you asked to play Schumann or did you choose to play this concerto yourself?

EL: I was asked, I actually wanted to play the 2nd Concerto by Prokofieff,  but then they asked me to substitute with the Schumann Concerto.

WB: Do you accept such requests?

EL: Yes, you should respect them.

WB: You have already played three times and in a few hours, you will play in a few hours again during this afternoon’s performance.  Do you play differently each time?

EL: I think so. After all, we are different every day. The main concept remains the same, but in every performance there are different details and colours.

WB: Are you conscious of this?

EL: Yes, that’s my experience. I noticed that there were less people in the hall on Friday and therefore the sound was clearer.

WB: What do you think of this hall? (Main hall of De Doelen in Rotterdam, WB)

EL: As far as the sound is concerned, not particularly great. The piano sounds ok, but I am not sure how it sounds if you play loudly. The sound disperses.

WB: How long have you lived in Western Europe?

EL:Since 1979.

WB: Did your playing change because of this?

EL: I am in a different place now. We play like we are, so if we change, we play differently.

WB: What is a necessity in this profession?

EL: The same as in any other job... The command of the instrument should be natural. It is our language. You must express what is written in the text. Just playing an instrument well does not convey anything to anyone, it will not convey a spiritual message. Other than that, you also need absolute dedication.

WB: Is there something you want to convey when you play?

EL: That’s in the notes, right?

WB: Yes,  but not everyone succeeds to bring the message across...

EL:Heinrich Neuhaus has written fantastic books and he once said: “Do not find yourself in the music, but find the music in yourself”, that makes the job interesting!

WB: Did you know Neuhaus?

EL: A little, when I knew him when I came to Moscow as a teenager.

WB: You knew Sviatoslav Richter very well, I consider him to be the greatest pianist I have ever heard live...

EL: I don’t think that any other pianist possibly had such a great spirit. The singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf said about him: “Slava is not of this world”

WB: What was your relationship with him like?

EL: As a young woman, I was married to the violonist Oleg Kagan. Richter was supposed to play the 1st Bartok Sonata and the 1st Prokofieff Sonata with Oistrach, but he didn’t have much time to practise, therefore he asked my husband to help him practise. I often went to Richter’s house and he made me feel welcome. It was a familiar relationship. That’s where we got the idea to play on two pianos, first the Andante and variations by Schumann. He loved to record Mozart’s sonatas in the transcription for two pianos by Grieg. He had wanted to do that since his youth, when his father used to play these sonatas with his students.

WB: When did you get to know him?

EL: At the end of the 60’s. Our friendship lasted until his last days and became increasingly important. It meant a lot to me. The way he saw the world has marked the way I think forever

WB: Can you remember any of his views in particular?

EL:It was more his attitude in general.

WB: What was he like as as human being? Ater watching the Monsaingeon documentary I had the impression that he was a rather complicated man.

EL: He was simple and great. I thought the film about the book by Monsaingeon was interesting but I am not sure whether people realized how great he was in reality

WB: He was incredibly self-critical!

EL: That’s a sign of greatness! Don’t you think Rembrandt was self critical?

WB:He was not only critical about his colleagues, but also about himself

EL: Yes, but he was much closer to himself than to a lot of his colleagues..

WB: Then again, he was very positive about you!

EL: There was a moment, after he had just heard me play, when he gave me a huge compliment. I was still very young at the time. I played a recital in Bonn, which he attended with his wife. I first played two Beethoven sonatas, opus 2/2 and opus 111, aswell as the big Tschaikofsky Sonata. Before the concert, he said to me  “Lisa, how can you do this? After opus 111, you can’t play anything at all!”, but then after the concert he said; “It was possible after all”. To his wife, he said “This girl is on the right path”. You know, I owe my skill to  play softly to him!

WB: Because he did it so well?

EL: When we played together, he always said “softer!”and I really had to force myself, but after a year I thought:”My tonal range is becoming richer”

WB: What does it mean when such a great colleague values you so much?

EL: A lot, he was God, he was on the Olympus! We often discussed things and I once asked him: “What does happiness mean for you?” to which he answered: “Oh, when you are in a good mood and can walk around in Prague” That was meant as a joke of course. He loved Czechoslavakia.

WB: There was a lot of discussion about the end of Monsaingeon’s film, when Richter said “I don’t like myself”

EL: No, he didn’t say that! He said: “I am not pleased about myself”. Just imagine his state of mind at the end of his life. It was a state of inner decline. He whitnessed his life ending, whilst fully conscious of what was happening.  He didn’t like the circumstances. He had always been energetic, he walked a lot, he also read an enormous amount of books, among which the complete works of Zola and Balzac, Dante aswell. He often came to Vienna with his wife and I always went to see them. His bypass operation, approximately six years before his death, came much too late. His arteries had been severely affected by sugar, and yet, he managed to play a lot of concerts. Later, he got a pace maker and he used to say: “I have a new heart”. A few years later, he fell in Paris and broke one of his knees. That was the beginning of the end.

WB: Did he really practise for up to ten hours a day?

EL: That’s logical if you play so many different programmes! He managed to play 150 different programmes! Also during the last years of his life, he played an incredible amount of compositions.

WB: About the Mozart/Grieg sonatas you mentioned before, why did you specifically recorded these with him?

EL: You shouldn’t be snobby about this. At the time, there was of course no internet, no CD’s and people couldn’t travel as easily as they can nowadays. There was a genius like Grieg who made the effort to bring these pieces to the people. Of course, it is romantic and Nordic, but he made his transcriptions with such piety!

WB: Don’t you think these pieces are examples of kitsch?

EL: It would be unfair to call it kitsch! It was simply something from another era and from another culture.

WB: Did you play other pieces with Richter?

EL: Yes, the Poulenc Double Concerto in Tours. During the same concert, he also played both the 2nd and 5th Saint Seans Concertos. The 2nd concerto was new to his repertoire, he had played the 5th before and wanted to take it up again.

WB: Did you like his performance of the 2nd concerto?

EL: Yes, very much.

WB: I have to say that Richter hardly ever disappointed me, but I heard a recording of this interpretation and I thought it was bad, very wooden and much too slow!

EL: You obviously couldn’t value the inner energy in his playing.. There can also be pulsation in slow tempi as well as a spiritual energy. Critics have often a stony and unmoved opinion. First of all, you have to open your spirit to hear what happens internally and then accept this..

WB: Are there performances by Richter you particularly remember?

EL: He once played the Appassionata in Amsterdam (in 1991, I was present at the same concert, WB), that was so perfect that it made me cry. And his Bach!

WB: Yes, exactly, when you listen to his Well Tempered Klavier, you would almost say that there are four different pianists playing!

EL: After his recording of this opus, he said, very modestly, “I hope it helps”. Do you know what he meant?

WB: No, not quite!

EL: That it helped to refresh his polyphonic thinking!

WB: Richter had an unusual power at the piano,  when you watch the film and see how he mastered the 5th Prokofieff concerto !

EL: He wore out his enormous energy! The conductor Sandor Vegh said about him: “Even Richter makes mistakes, but his mistakes are great!”.

WB: Are there other artists that made a similar impression on you?

EL: No, because I haven’t been as close with any other artist. Richter often asked me to play second piano when he studied new concertos.

WB: He never thought of leaving Russia though.

EL: No, such geniuses don’t need to do that.

WB: Did he discuss this with you when you left Russia?

EL: I knew that he was very concerned, but he never discussed this with me.

WB: Did you often hear Gilels play?

EL: He was not my favourite pianist I have to say. I like his recordings, but his concerts lacked  colour, although he played perfectly. I went to his concerts all the time, as I wanted to find out what he wanted to express. For me Gilels was a great pianist, but Richter was a greater artist.

WB: Are there conductors with whom you got on really well with?

EL: Kurt Masur and also Sir Colin Davis are great musicians. With Pletniev I played Schumann and the 2nd Brahms Concerto. I was completely happy to make music with the latter. He is so honest and has no pretence whatsoever!

WB: Did you perform with Kondrashin?

EL: Yes, I did, too bad he died so early! He was very different after he moved to the West, mellower and more open...

WB: You just mentioned Pletniev, what do you think of him as a pianist?

EL: He is an incredibly gifted and honest musician! Other than that, I value Lupu and it’s always great to hear Leif Ove Andsnes.

WB: I have a recording at home where you accompany the violinist Philippe Hirshorn...

EL: He too was a great talent, but he didn’t manage to find himself. It is sad when a great talent doesn’t manage to establish itself. Not everybody manages this as well as Gidon Kremer!

WB: I don’t know if I may ask you this, but you play quite a lot of “masculine”pieces like the Brahms concertos and the Liszt sonata...

EL (laughs) all young girls want to play this, don’t they?

WB: Are they more difficult for a woman to play than for a man?

EL: It depends on which woman plays. For Maria Joao Pires, the 2nd Brahms Concerto would  probably be too demanding, but in the past Gina Bachauer played it succesfully.

WB: And you will shortly play the 2nd Prokofieff Concerto, why this one?

EL:It is such an impossible piece! But it’s also a great piece. There is so much in it, such a variety of different harmonic details. I want to play it in such a way that there will be a maximum of clarity and that all will say: “This is a tragic piece!”. Imagine when Prokofieff received a letter from his best friend Maximilian Schmidthof who had shot himself. The concerto was dedicated to him!

WB: Will this be the first time that you play this piece?

EL: No, I have played it before.

WB: But it is not only a tragic piece, is it? There are also very beautiful lyrical passages?

EL: What is “tragic”? There is simply no way out when you listen to this music, it encompasses everything... (thinks) it is a pretty difficult piece for sure!

WB: You made a new recording with late piano pieces by Brahms on a period instrument the other day, is there a specific reason you did this?

EL: The producer of the label loves period instruments and he really wanted me to play on an old piano.

WB: So it wasn’t that you really wanted to play these pieces on a period instrument?

EL: No, they also sound beautiful on a modern Steinway! I must say that a period instrument has a few disadvantages, mechanical problems like background noises.

WB: Do you have a preference for Brahms and Schubert above other composers? You often play their music.

EL: When you live in Vienna, you know the air Brahms and Schubert inhaled...

WB: Do you teach?

EL: I sometimes give master classes. I like to do this, but it may be dangerous at times. You have to leave yourself enough time, and you shouldn’t become self righteous and think you know better than everyone else....

Eliso Virsaladze

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?

EV: Exactly!

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.

WB: Why?

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...

WB: Well...?

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?

WB: Unique?

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.

© 2009




Utrecht, 28 September 2022

Willem Boone (WB): How is it going with the competition, did you have any pleasant surprises?

Frederic Chiu (FC): Oh, so many! With this competition in particular, there are always repertoire surprises, because Liszt wrote so much.

WB: Can you mention one of these discoveries?

FC: The Gretchen from Faust, I knew that he had written this and now I have heard it four times. To hear it by four different artists is like looking at it from four different perspectives. 

WB: It’s a very long piece, isn’t it?

FC: Yes, it’s a long and complex piece. Very beautiful and Wagnerian: you can see where Wagner stole from Liszt! All the good ideas (laughs)

WB: How would you rate the overall level of this competition, is it very high?

FC: Yes, it is! This competition always brings out people who work really hard and who play extremely difficult music. That’s the only way you can prepare the repertoire and because they are these kind of people, they usually produce amazing results. They may not be the most popular types of players or the most famous of their age, but they are definitely the hardest working. That comes through when you meet them, they are so focused and concentrated on piano playing.

WB: What do you think of the idea to include Schubert in the competition?

FC: I personally love it, I talked to Rob many times about the projects I am working on, like Beethoven and Liszt. I recorded Beethoven symphonies and also a lot of Schubert/Liszt transcriptions. I programmed it a lot in different concerts. Schubert was the other wonderful surprise, to hear Schwanengesang played by fourdifferent pianists, it’s great. 

WB: What is your relationship with Liszt, do you play his music a lot?

FC: I recorded Schwanengesang 20 years ago, it was a life-changing moment to work on that repertoire at the time. I have gone through some very difficult periods in my life that coincided with a kind of coming out of one shell. It’s a wonderful group of songs that  became a legitimate song cycle. It was not intended as a unified set by Schubert, but it  became that. Liszt’s transcription was a remarkable work of completion.

WB: Do you play a lot of Liszt?

FC: I often play Liszt, a specific part of it. I don’t like everything that Liszt wrote; I would say much of it is not in my style. It is a style that I would not even imagine to be playing, but then there are places in the repertoire where I feel very much at home. Schwanengesang is an example: I don’t understand why people don’t play this music more. It is technically and musically challenging, but it is something that I have played a lot. I even made a kind of music theatre version of it where I work with an actor. He reads the poetry that is associated with the music and we alternate poetry and transcription.  We do it in different languages, i.e. the actor recites in different languages. If you are Japanese, for example, and you love hearing Schwanengesang in the original version but you don’t speak German, of course you can read the Japanese translations beforehand and then memorize them, so you kind of know what they are saying when you listen to the German. You can listen to the amazing way that Schubert put the words to music, but it is an intellectual exercise. 

WB: And you played the piano transcription?

FC: There was no singer, but the melody was in the transcription. It’s like de-constructed Schubert Lieder where you experience the words first, then the music, the meaning of the words. And it is in your native language, I have not yet done this in Japan, which I would like to do. It is perhaps one of the places where they are most respectful to this kind of music. So we’ll hopefully find an actor in Japan and find a good translation of the German, so the Japanese will feel it in their heart.

WB: In how many languages did you do this?

FC: In English, French, German, Estonian, four languages in six countries so far. I would love to do it in Japanese and in Chinese. That’s my background and that would be a great connection. 

WB: There are some very famous pianists like Ashkenazy, Sokolov and Schiff who don’t want to play Liszt, could you understand why this is?

FC: I don’t know, did they say that?

WB: They said it in interviews, I remember Ashkenazy made one recording that is fantastic, but he said he didn’t like it, Schiff never played it and I think it’s the same for Sokolov.

FC: I never heard that, I should read their interviews.

WB: If you play the devil’s advocate, could you understand them?

FC: I think I could, there is a theatricality in this music that I can see would not fit with certain personalities, I don’t see it in on a musical level or as far as the sophistication is concerned. 

WB: People sometimes say his music is empty….

FC: I don’t think it’s empty, but it is a certain kind of emotion that is very public, even in the solitary moments of his music, it’s gift-wrapped solitude versus Chopin whose solitude is actually himself and you’d rather not listen almost! Of course he is writing music to be listened to, but it is almost written for himself versus Liszt who is always conscious of the receiver.

WB: Would you say Liszt is an acquired taste?

FC: (thinks): I think Liszt is not so much a taste as it is a kind of attitude, he had so many tastes! (laughs), I think I find Liszt to my taste in some places and not to my taste at all in other places. There is a lot for everyone, but not everything is for everyone. 

WB: I spoke to your colleague Janina Fialkowska and she too said “You can’t say that you don’t like Liszt, since there are so many Liszts.” It was exactly the same as you just said.

FC: It’s amazing that Liszt was able to write all of this, not only because of the incredible quantity, but the fact that it is so diverse and that it has such wide ranging psychology, that one person could do that. Of course, he had a whole life to do it, a crazy life, but he was able to express all of that.

WB: Regarding the transcriptions of Die Winterreise and Schwanengesang, how would you approach them: as a pianist or as a singer?

FC: I approach them as what they are, which is a pianist’s understanding of a singer’s adventure, it does change things if you play as a pianist. There are things that don’t work, if you play it only as someone trying the replicate the voice, then there are thing that you miss. It has to be both and I think that’s why it works. 

WB: I attended two evenings and though there were moments of great beauty, there were also moments that I felt you lost Schubert’s delicacy and the virtuosity became predominant?

FC: In the Winterreise especially. There is a different feeling in Schwanengesang because the alternate purpose Liszt had in mind was to finish a compositional path versus transforming a finished composition. Of course, if you work with something that is already refined and done, all you can do is modify things that distort it to make it something different. When it is something unfinished, then you have a responsibility to the person who left it and a responsibility to the music itself that wants to go in a certain direction.

WB: Could you say it was already perfect the way Schubert wrote it?

FC: I would say that every song is perfect, but I would say as a cycle, it is not. And there are so many references in the Liszt transcription, the order of the pieces is already completely different and it is an almost scientifically programmed order when you look at the key structure. It looks like the key structure of a Liszt piece. It actually looks like a Liszt structure.  

WB: It was good that you could see the keyboard. There were some impossible things happening pianistically speaking. It was in Schwanengesang, I don’t remember in which song, one with a fast pace. How can you even do that?

FC: It’s crazy!

WB: And what is frustrating about it: it didn’t sound difficult! 

FC: The spirit of the song is happy or simple, but the structure behind the notes is so complicated. That is definitely an added challenge on the technical side.

WB: I was fascinated by the films on YouTube of your recordings of transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies. It was very insightful, but I was thinking: can it be that these (at least for me) work better in the slow sections than in the faster movements?

FC: Yes, there is a limit technically to what can be done; there is a moment where it becomes impossible on a pianistic level, so there has to be some kind of accommodation or compromise. For the most part, Liszt handles it in a way that it feels more like Beethoven when he gets to the bottom of the keyboard and the old keyboards had fewer notes. Some editors in modern era correct Beethoven by writing what he should have written if the keyboards had been longer, but he didn’t. I have a similar feeling with Liszt when he has to accommodate an extra voice that can’t be played with an extra hand, then he writes a figuration that allows to play these notes in a different octave, but you know that the melody continues from the top octave and goes down.

WB: Sometimes it sounds very bare on a piano…

FC: Yes, but I think it’s the pianist’s responsibility. Liszt is very helpful, because he understands: I can’t do it, so I am going to make a trick, or I am going to trick the audience: start a pattern in one place, and then skip it for a couple of beats and go back and pick it up again. It’s like a magician…

WB: What you said at the end of the slow movement of the 7th symphony was fascinating: you really showed on the piano how you can imitate the sounds of a flute or an oboe, but it means that you have to know the score incredibly well.

FC: Yes and you have to be sensitive to the tiny nuances of the piano sound, because in the end, it’s all piano with a very specific, narrow sound. That’s the magic of the instrument: if you take the time to enter into the world and you have a pianist who is sensitive, it allows you to start hearing the different nuances of the piano sound…

WB: How do you even find the sound of a flute on a piano? Where do you start?

FC: You know, it’s interesting, once you start delving into it and you play something, people can say: “O, that’s the sound of a flute”, but if you actually look at the sound waves, it looks nothing like a flute, but it’s the most flute like sound you can make on the piano. If you use it exclusively to imitate the flute section that has a particular phrasing, shape of the phrase or articulation, then people start to associate that with: o yes, that’s the flute section, it’s kind of the flute part, so it must be the flute.

WB: Do you have a very clear idea of how you want to ‘play’ a clarinet or a flute?

FC: Yes, it’s even certain physical techniques that have to be respected to make certain kind of sound. And pedaling of course is the key to all of that, the control of the overtones, I would say there is some resemblance in the overtones series that you might ring for certain notes to imitate the flute sound, more in octaves and fifths versus an oboe which has the thirds and fourths. I wouldn’t be able to say: ‘This is the profile of a flute’, but I know if I play like this and do the pedal like this I can get a flute kind of overtone series versus technique like this and pedal like this for an oboe sound.

WB: That requires a lot!

FC: It’s experimenting and remembering and being open to exploring the sound. 

WB: Can you replicate that?

FC: That’s what I am trying to do, the whole job of a pianist is to find something and replicate it.  I feel when it’s not repeatable, it’s not art, it’s nature. Nature is wonderful, but it never repeats itself and you never know what to expect, because it’s not planned. When you discover it, it is beautiful. Sunsets are different every night and we love sunsets! But if it’s supposed to be art, it’s meant to be intentional. If you can’t put things in the right place, you are not telling anybody anything, you are not communicating a thing. You are just being in front of someone and they watch you be whoever you are.

WB: So you see it as something you recreate?

FC: You have to be able to recreate it in order for it to be an artistic creation.

WB: That’s a very rational way!

FC: In a desired way, if you look at the way a painter paints a sunset, it can be spontaneous, but in the end it’s presented to you, because he chose that. The same happens with composers and real time performers like we are. Even though you hear it, you remember it and then it’s gone, it’s still wanted and a sequence of wanted experiences. If I play Schwanengesang in one place, it will be completely different from the way I play it the next time, but I wanted to do that, I wanted to play Schwanengesang. And that means something and even though it’s not the same every time, it’s a desired experience.

WB: Vladimir Horowitz once said the transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies were the best piano works ever written, do you agree?

FC: In some ways, I do. I certainly understand the significance of them. I think they are perhaps the most important works and I said this in the masterclass on the Beethoven symphonies. In the class I mentioned a couple of notations in the score that are kind of controversial points in standard orchestral repertoire. Conductors chose two different ways to perform certain appoggiatura in the slow movements. There are huge debates and changes from generation to generation about which one is correct and desired. Liszt basically said: ‘Here is how it should be played, because it is the only way to play it on the piano.’  He heard it that way in his lifetime and intended it that way. Liszt heard Beethoven performers play it that way, so that’s it. Not that another way is wrong or not beautiful, it is, and we can choose to do so. Beethoven is not here to say you can’t do it that way. But it does give us the only insights we have as to how the musicians in Beethoven’s time played, Liszt understood he had some work to do, to anchor in history. Again, I think it was his best work because there was an ulterior motive that was beyond himself. He felt he had to accomplish a purpose. When he had such a calling, he could be the most convincing person in the world. When he doesn’t have that purpose, I think he can be the most annoying person in the world (laughs).

WB: I have a few questions about Prokofiev, since you played all of his piano works, so he must be very dear to your heart?

FC: Absolutely! 

WB: It hasn’t been done so often!

FC: I don’t understand why, because I think his work is remarkable. It’s a testimony of a life that was so incredibly interesting. It was not the greatest life, not the most inspiring life, but certainly a well lived, hugely diverse one.

WB: Emil Gilels once said you can’t play Prokofiev badly, is that true?

 FC: What did he mean? I never heard that before.

WB: I read it once and was intrigued.

FC: Is he saying you are not allowed to or is it not possible to find a way to play it badly?

WB: Maybe it’s my guess that he wanted to say it has such quality that you can’t give a bad performance of his works..I think you can butcher Prokofiev though!

FC: Definitely, yes, by making it one-dimensional where one characteristic comes across more than the others. There are five elements in his music that are usually always present: the neoclassic, the humor, the toccata-like approach, an attempt to be impressionistic or spontaneous and unclear, and beautiful melodies. It’s a wonderful exercise to work out in Prokofiev: if you are playing more than four measures in any one of those elements, you should start looking out for the others, because it’s going to change, it’s going to start incorporating a melody or neoclassic chord structures or start incorporating some humor or some sarcasm. I think a lot of people look for that toccata-element and don’t look for much else.

WB: Which is fascinating!

FC: Yes, indeed and revolutionary and important, but if you only look for that and get rid of the humor, or the neoclassic or the romantic or impressionistic, then you are stucking it way from its essence. 

WB: I remember I heard his 2nd Piano Concerto when I was in a music shop in Paris, almost 40 years ago, I didn’t know who composed it at the time, but I thought: ‘What is this? It is so violent or aggressive’. It reminded me of war and only later on, I discovered that there are also beautiful parts in it and I really got to like it. 

FC: There is some movements that are so crazy, but even in those after a few phrases of in your face blaring of brass instruments, it all of sudden mellows out and there is a beautiful melody. Something you think you have heard before…

WB: Did you play all of the piano sonatas in a cycle?

FC: Yes, I did, it’s a huge challenge. I have done the nine sonatas in one evening, besides being a challenge it’s also an amazing journey as you can imagine. 

WB: Were you still alive after that?

FC: I have done it a few times, but I don’t know if I could do it again! 

WB: Nothing but number six, seven and eight in one evening seems an impossible task to me!

FC: It is a killer!

WB: Even Ashkenazy, who could easily do it, said he would never consider it…

FC: I didn’t do them in order, I grouped them into different characters and split six, seven and eight to each of the three sections. They tell a great story.

WB: Which one came last in the order?

FC: Eight came last. Six, seven and eight are very interesting, people call them the ‘war sonatas’ because they were written at a time that he was certainly suffering from the war.  But I have a different theory. He was also suffering from a midlife crisis, going through a separation in his marriage and his kids, he was writing his own biography, being a very meticulous biographer. He wanted to write a huge sonata in ten movements and then later he split it into sonatas number six, seven and eight. You can see it as ten movements; I think he was plotting out his life.

WB: Did he really want to write a sonata in ten movements?

FC: Yes, he wrote that, it was his war project. He was stuck in the countryside, he didn’t know what to do, it was almost like covid in our time…

WB: Ten movements are indeed all the movements of number six, seven and eight!

FC: When you look at the arch of the movements, it’s split out into three sections that represent the sections of his life, where he had his childhood, time of child prodigy, being respected and hated for the way he wrote for piano, and then the period in Europe and the USA where he tried to create a career for himself and keep up his reputation, be newer than the latest new composers, come up with intellectual discoveries. Finally, there was his return to the Soviet Union. Look at the first movements of six, seven and eight: in six, he is beating the piano, seven starts with a strange chromatic motive, almost like a tonerow and has a movement in 7/8 meter, and eight is this huge, serene melody. If you think of those as his life as opposed to everyone’s war. There is no beautiful ending to the war: if you are telling the war story, it should somewhere end with a nuclear bomb! The middle movements tell different aspects of his life, his marriage, his successes, his failures and attempts. I have done that program of six, seven and eight too, to tell that story. 

WB: Can we briefly go through the sonatas?  I write for a music magazine and I recently reviewed a cd of Alexander Melnikov, who is also recording all of the sonatas. One of the pieces was the first sonata. Can you say that he wasn’t Prokofiev yet when he wrote that particular sonata?

FC: I think he was Prokofiev in his ambition, it’s his opus 1! The opus 1 of a composer is always very delicate; it’s his calling card to the world. He was such a needy person, he needed to be accepted, respected. He was very young and probably thought: ‘This is my calling card, I have to show that I am a good student!’

WB: It vaguely reminded me of Rachmaninov?

FC: Yes, there is some kind of early Rachmaninov.

WB: I am not sure, but I thought he hated Rachmaninov?

FC: I think that the fact it was his opus 1, that tells me he wanted people to know: ‘I can do Rachmaninov.” The same way, his impressionistic style is a way to say to people: “I can do Debussy’ In his opus 2 pieces, he wanted to say: ‘O, I can do strange Scriabin and Debussy kind of things’.

WB: I interviewed your colleague Olli Mustonen and he told me that Prokofiev in his biography tells he went to listen to Rachmaninov playing his Second Piano Concerto in Paris and somehow he was also influenced by Rachmaninov?

FC: Prokofiev was very conscious of Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, because of his nature, he was competitive. I don’t think there was any role model for Prokofiev that he did not become jealous of eventually.

WB: Can you say that he was already iconoclastic or barbarian in the 2nd sonata where he was much more Prokofiev?

FC: He was much more of what we now understand as Prokofiev, he was more confident and even pushed that in front of people. There was a huge change in his approach.

WB: The third sonata is very short, but it has a lot of pepper and salt and it sounds like Prokofiev! It is his music in a nut shell, right?

FC: Absolutely, it’s based on note books in which he wrote down notes as a teenager. I think he was showing people: ‘Here is what I was already doing when I was ten years old, look at this!.’ I think he was much more mature as a composer, using that material, developing it and putting it out there. 

WB: The fourth sonata is the one I know least..

FC: I think both about the third and the fourth sonata, he wanted to say: ‘Look at the range I already had when I was so young’. 

WB: Is the fourth sonata entirely based on these notes?

FC: I am not sure how much is based on these notes but both three and four are subtitled ‘from old notebooks.’ 

WB: The fifth is to me a bit of an enigmatic piece..

FC: It’s the only one he wrote when he was in his middle phase and I believe it’s an attempt to sound more neoclassic than Poulenc and Stravinsky.

WB: It’s neither the style of number two nor the one of the war sonatas!

FC: It is from his intellectual period; I believe he then lived in a very uncomfortable way. He was not a natural performer. He had to and he did it reluctantly in some respects. There was this famous moment when he and Stravinsky and Diaghilev arrived together on a cruise ship, they travelled across the Atlantic by ship at that time, around 1918. One of the pictures that was taken was subtitled: ‘The Russian impressario Sergei Diaghilev, the great Russian composer Stravinsky and the great Russian pianist Sergei Prokofiev.’He was very irritated by this comment, because he wanted to be the composer, maybe not the only composer, but he definitely wanted to be compared to Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, who were famous at the time. He wanted to be famous in the same way. He had to perform and he had the pianistic level, but then he had to compete with Rachmaninov who was well known as a pianist. He resented he never had his own star at the walk of fame. The fifth sonata is a representation of the attempt to be more classical than the neoclassics. He wrote something that started off like a Mozart sonata. He rewrote it later with a bit of humility: ‘You know, let me revise something of what I did when I was acting stupid.’

WB: Would you say the sixth sonata is a sardonic piece?

FC: It is a nostalgic piece, he is recalling how famous he was when he was very young and breaking norms, setting the bar for his level in certain styles and discoveries. He was nostalgic about the power he had when he was young. He was playful and prolific. The middle movements tell different sides of that story. 

WB: The second movement is not as innocent as it sounds!

FC: No, he is looking back and thinking; you know, that was naïve, that was childish, but that was how I was…He was using his modern, mature technique to tell that story of a younger self.

WB: And would you say number seven is the most aggressive?

FC: It’s the most bitter and kind of rebelling, I think. He understood that he was not happy and that he was fighting against certain trends and also trying to meet them. He was experimenting, it’s the most complex sonata, the meter changes all the time. He uses strange 7/8 meter for the last movement, even though it’s very fast forward moving. It represents him fighting against the innovation to be something that is more straightforward.

WB: As to the Precipitato, I think it is the movement I heard the most different versions of, I also wonder what this tempo indication exactly means?

FC: I have played it in very different ways too, with different ideas. Sometimes I distort the 7/8 and make it very uncomfortable and bring it out that accent…

WB: Ashkenazy once said it’s a tank that is gaining speed, can you relate to that?

FC: I don’t think he is wrong, I wouldn’t say he is wrong in anything, however, it is such an impersonal image. I don’t think Prokofiev thought of war and if he thought of a tank, it was his inner tank that was running over all the French composers. Or possibly he was thinking of his return to Russia.

WB: Should it be played in one tempo or do you have to speed up?

FC: ‘Preciptato’ doesn’t mean ‘speeding up’, I believe, it’s rather going to your destination without waiting for anybody.

WB: There is a film of Sokolov playing it in Paris, do you know it?

FC: I think I have seen it.

WB: I heard him play it live and it was fascinating: he took a very measured tempo, but he was very consequent. I heard Argerich play it live too and that was nothing short of amazing, but Sokolov was building up this huge sound, like a cathedral. It was the second time I heard Sokolov live and I was not convinced by everything, but with the Prokofiev he definitely won me over. 

FC: I have played it going forward without speeding up and then other times where the 7/8 and the accent on the off-beat is like speed bumps, you want to go forward and you keep tripping.  The French were constantly criticizing him that he was not that inventive or experimental, so it’s faltering. 

WB: Did you experiment with several tempi in the finale of number eight too?

FC: He was writing number eight to tell the story that he was living at home, so it’s the one with the least perspective. It’s about lyricism, accessibility. 

WB: It can also be very violent!

FC: Yes, when I listen to my own recording, I think: why did I play it so fast? A lot of the elegance and the privileged nature doesn’t come out as well as I would like it to come out. I think he understood that he was respected for who he was and wanted to be more than at any other time in his life. 

WB: I think the last pages of the Vivace are unplayable!

FC: I was working on it with a student and he asked for fingerings and I said: ‘I have no fingerings!’I actually have one, but it doesn’t work (laughs), it’s some of the most difficult pages I have ever played. 

WB: And in number nine he mellowed a lot…

FC: He mellows in the sense that he loses his power. I don’t think it’s ‘desired mellow’ like ‘My main life work is done’, it’s more like ‘I have to do this, I can’t do anything else.’

WB: Would you call it ‘otherworldly’?

FC: Yes, it was definitely seen from a distant perspective, he intended this to be part of six, seven and eight, but he had lived his last stage where he had his accident and when he was forced to denounce his own style. He couldn’t fight any more, it’s very salutary. Life and energy are very contained and individual. 

WB: Are there echoes of childhood?

FC: Yes, he reaches back to childhood, to grab some of that really early music for children.

WB: He started writing a tenth sonata, didn’t he?

FC: It’s very difficult to say what that would have been like. I think there would have been more complexity, he was trying to revive some intellectual energy.

WB: Do you have a favorite among the sonatas?

FC: Number eight, although it’s not my favorite to play, because it’s so captivating and digital, it’s hard to have the right mindset to approach it. In terms of thinking, the structure, the shape of the melodies are more impressive than in any of the other sonatas.

WB: The first movement is very lyrical!

FC: Yes, it’s like one long phrase, one arch from the beginning to the end.

WB: I took a look at your discography and saw you also recorded all of the Chopin Mazurkas, I find them difficult pieces, they seem evasive..

FC: That is a very good word! It’s true that they are difficult to pin down and I think it’s an element that reflects Chopin’s own view of his background. It’s not a pedagogic or research based approach to folk music, not like Bartok or Kodaly ore even Brahms. It’s an evocation of feelings that are very personal to him, when he thinks of Polish life, Poland and how he is or isn’t Polish or how he represents or doesn’t represent his country. He is using elements of different Mazurkas, shifting from this kind of Mazurka to that kind of Mazurka. No single Mazurka has one single kind of energy. Some measures go forward, some go back, some stay on the ground, other go up or down, there is no singe phrase that has one character. I think that is the challenge of these compositions: how can you reflect this light that is constantly changing. He himself had this ambivalent, evasive view of what he was talking about.

WB: I listened to your Chopin Etudes that are on YouTube, I listened to the first one and I have to tell you that I was so fascinated that I couldn’t stop, so I listened until the end. I was really impressed!

FC: O, thank you! 

WB: Someone wrote in a comment that you are ‘the world’s most underappreciated pianist’

FC: That’s very nice!

WB: It is really impressive: poetic, I hadn’t the feeling that I was listening to very virtuosic music and they are among the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano..

FC: They are a real challenge for me. That shows the results of my own personal evolution, because I learned a lot of it when I was very young. I played them as exercises and it took me many years of being away from them to then come back to it as music by Chopin. I had revelations of them when I was living in Paris and started seeing him as a person versus a catalog of piano works. I started seeing him more for his personal statement of expressions. And then I went back to the Etudes and the technique was still there to play the notes, but I heard it as music. It was completely different.

WB: I have a few questions about memory, I wrote a chapter in a book about this subject with interesting comments of famous colleagues. They spoke about different types of memory: muscle memory, visual memory. The latter includes both hand positions on the piano and visualization of the score. Alicia de Larrocha said: ‘Relying on the memory of fingers is dangerous’, do you agree?

FC: I think only relying on any one particular form of memory is dangerous! I think you need a safety net of many different levels and strengths. There are times where I am playing and I see that my structural memory is faulty, I cannot remember what to play, so I blank my mind and I let the fingers play it. That’s relying completely on muscle memory and trusting it, it seems when I get past the tricky passages that I go back to thinking and go back to feeling and listening. Sometimes I have to shut everything off and let the body do what it knows how to do.

WB: Claudio Arrau said: “I have four kinds of memory: muscle, photographic, sound and analytic. I use analytic memory last after the work has gone into my body, my muscles, my ears, my vision.”

FC: That’s very interesting, I would say emotional memory is something I use as well. It’s analytical in the sense of how things are related intellectually.

WB: And what is the emotional memory?

FC: After this emotion, what emotions does it lead to? If you feel defeated, when do you think: ah, I start fighting again? And when you had victory, when do you start doubting again? 

WB: Is it true when you are lost and you know the structure well that you can find your way out?

FC: Yes, that happens more often than you think. If you make the wrong turn, you can’t start again and make the right turn. That’s a different skill.

WB: Another quote, from Alfred Brendel: “I have a good aural and kinesthetic memory, but my memory isn’t visual at all. I don’t see the score as I play.”

FC: I don’t see the score either.

WB: And a quote, from Arthur Rubinstein: “My memory is mostly photographic, inherited from my father. When I play, I turn pages in my mind, I even see the coffee stains. My knowledge of the architecture of a work, how it’s built, helps too.”

FC: That’s very interesting, that shows as pianists we use whatever we have in hand, whatever is going to help us, we remember it. Some people have special gifts: I don’t have photographic memory nor perfect pitch nor perfect muscle memory. I have a combination of things that works for me. 

WB: When you study a score, do you have to memorize it or does it go more or less automatically?

FC: No, I do work for memory, because I don’t have photographic memory. I create structures in my head that are emotional, chromatic and I try to fit everything in to that. I don’t feel I have a particular special gift, but I have a special package that works together. I explore all the aspects of that and make it constantly work together.

WB: My last question: what are your next projects?

FC: I have a very special Prokofiev project: I produced a ballet that is called ‘Romeo and Juliet The Choice” It’s the entire ballet performed by a ballet troupe. The music is all played on the piano in the original Prokofiev draft score for piano. The ballet dancers dance on the same stage as the pianist, so it’s integrated in the scenario and there are lots of interactive elements with the audience. In particular the audience votes for the ending they want to see. The original ending that Prokofiev imagined, was happy, where they stay alive. They ran away and the families kept fighting, because they blame each other for them running away. Only years later, he wrote the ending we all know which is the traditional Shakespeare ending where they kill themselves and the family comes together in mourning. This choice of ending can only happen in the piano version as Prokofiev did not orchestrate his original happy ending.  

WB: And where will you do this?

FC: I have done this a few times already, so I am looking for more performance opportunities. I think it’s a way for ballet to become much more democratic and populist instead of being on a stage that’s distant and far from the audience. That way, it’s coming to people.

WB: Did you actually play a lot in the Netherlands?

FC: Yes, but not that much, the last time was when I was living in Paris and that is fifteen years ago. We just figured out that this is my seventh trip to Utrecht to be involved with the Liszt Competition. I feel it’s a great project to be involved in.