Striving to play without fault

 

ELISABETH LEONSKAJA, who once used to be pigeon-holed by a single adjective, Soviet, is a pianist on whom a multitude of influences have played. She was born in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, to parents who came from Odessa. She studied in Moscow from her late teens, and adopted Vienna as her home in 1978.

I met her on neutral territory, in Switzerland’s best-known coffee house, Zurich’s Café Sprüngli, all abuzz with the clatter of cups and the noisy flow of mid-morning conversations. Her aura of calm seemed almost out of place (she suggested the café in the mistaken expectation it would be quiet), and she talked about herself with a modesty that was more than self-effacing. And all the time she radiates a rare sense of inner beauty.

“Unfortunately I am not Georgian, and my parents also are not. They came during the second World War to Georgia from Odessa. My mother was Jewish, my father was Polish and Russian. And at this point I am really an Austrian mixture. I am very happy to have been born and spent my childhood in Tbilisi. It was very sane.”

The way she recalls it, her childhood was blissful. The people around her were full of hope, and there was lots and lots of music. “It was not such a big city, probably half a million at this time, and there were probably a hundred music schools. Georgians love music, because you know Georgian culture – they are singing a cappella, six or eight voices. This is so important for each nation, like a choir, to sing.”

Her mother had studied singing and piano in Odessa, but in very difficult circumstances, “so it was a dream of hers that I would play piano, make music. Like everybody, I started at seven.” Progress at the piano was exceptionally quick, though it all seemed perfectly normal to her. She was only 11 when she played with an orchestra for the first time, and she gave her first recital two years later.

At the age of 18 she went to Bucharest to take part in the Enescu Competition, and came away with the top prize. It was only then that she moved to Moscow to study at the Conservatory, not because it was necessary, she says, but because she wanted “to get new light, and new air, and explore a new situation”.

She had grown up in Tbilisi without any awareness of issues of nationality. “That was the situation in my family. My parents tried to shield me from politics. For example, Stalin died in 1953 when I was seven. They never talked about it at home. I got the information in the music school, where everybody was talking about it. Then when I grew up I heard people talking, he is Armenian, he is this, he is that, and I thought, ‘What is this?’ For me, it was just people.”

In Moscow it was not an issue whether she was Georgian or Russian. “In Moscow there was only one point in this regard, if I am Jewish or not.” Her passport stated that she was Russian, because her father was Russian. “But in the papers in the Conservatory it was necessary to record details about mothers as well as fathers. I just had a feeling that something was wrong. But what? For many years I had no explanation, because it was under water, under the floor. And then, bit by bit, I understood.”

The training in Moscow brought her work to a new level of intensity. She had to prepare from memory for the first lesson on a new piece, and although she came to Moscow “as a star, a prizewinner” she couldn’t but be aware of how good everyone around her was, and how competitive all the music students were.

Although she herself refers to a “Russian school” of piano playing, the reality, she says, is that there never was a single school. There have been too many different tendencies for that. She mentions some of the famous players and teachers, Alexander Goldenweiser (who was a close associate of the composers Rachmaninov and Scriabin), Samuel Feinberg, with his “absolutely wonderful German spirit” (Feinberg was celebrated not only for his playing but also for his arrangements of Bach), Heinrich Neuhaus, with his concentration on “the classic and romantic school, and very free spirit,” and whose list of great pupils included Radu Lupu and Sviatoslav Richter.

She traces the lineage of her own teacher Jacob Milstein. He was an assistant of Konstantin Igumnov, who studied with Alexander Siloti, who studied with Liszt. But the connection back to Liszt is not one that she’s ever been exercised about. What’s good in the Russian way of piano playing, she says, is the focus on personality. “This is what is important.What you are doing, and who you are. Not any business about the idea that this is good and this is bad. There was nothing dogmatic. Never.”

On the other hand, the Russian way of playing music sounds, well, Russian. “If you speak Russian, if you are steeped in Russian culture, all your spirit, all your heart is different, and you hear differently. My first concert in the West was in Vienna, and all the reviews said things like ‘her playing of Mozart or Beethoven is so Russian’.” That’s a very easy comment to make, she says, but one she also took very seriously. And now, when she hears Russian pianists on the very highest level – she instances Mikhail Pletnev and Grigory Sokolov – “I hear this Russian way of making a phrase. It’s absolutely natural that it should be so. They have a Russian heart. How could it be different?”

MOVING TO VIENNA seems to have caused some kind of musical crisis. She was living and working in a musical culture that she held in the highest regard, and the temptation was to imitate what she found around her. But, she had to conclude, the effect was actually the opposite of what she wanted. She was closing herself off, and it took a long time to find herself again. “It’s the first water in the bath that’s most important. What I was doing was nonsense. It’s all a matter of your musical feeling, and what is the phrase. The phrase is the rhythm, but it’s not the metre.”

Similar distinctions between rhythm and metre are also to be found in poetry. “On a very high level, say with Richter, rhythm is nearly together with the metre.” It’s this feat of convergence, she says, this near fusion, which gave Richter’s playing such an astonishing feeling of being tight and exact.

Richter, of course, was a major influence on Leonskaja. They met in the late 1960s when she was married to the violinist Oleg Kagan. Richter called on Kagan’s services when he was preparing for a concert with the violinist David Oistrakh. The Richter/Oistrakh collaborations were the stuff of legend, Kagan independently became a favourite duo partner of Richter’s, and their collaborations, which continued until Kagan’s early death, are well documented on EMI Classics and the German Live Classics label. Richter also worked on repertoire for two pianos with Leonskaja, most famously on some of the reworkings of Mozart sonatas made by Grieg, who controversially transformed 18th- century works for piano solo into pieces for two pianos with a decidedly 19th-century flavour.

There was never anything in the way of a formal lesson. But, apart from the performances they gave together, she was also called upon to accompany Richter on a second piano when he was preparing concertos.

And she spent time in his flat after a bereavement, and was able to hear him at work. “Sometimes I had the feeling he was asleep, it was all so slow. Afterwards, I understood. He was thinking.”

Through our conversation she always seemed more apt to focus on the artistic challenges she faces than to document her achievements. When I asked about what was most difficult about being a pianist, she answered with a story. “I know Radu Lupu very well. The first time I met him, it was on the street in Moscow, just after I had arrived from Bucharest, from the competition. Somebody shouted at me, ‘I know you. You were born a week earlier than me’. Since this time, we always write on our birthdays. Two years ago, I got a note from Radu, good wishes and so on, and then, ‘Lisa, please try to get the piece without fault from the beginning to the end’. It sounds very easy, but really to get it in one line, with your own spirit and concentration . . . I think this is the most difficult.”

And then when I asked, what aspect was easy for her, she replied quickly, “To make something bad”.

Her two visits to Ireland this year will see her playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the RTÉ NSO, and Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in Bantry House. What makes these pieces special for her?

“Transcendence. In different ways. I don’t know where I got the idea of learning and playing the last three Schubert sonatas together. The first one is à la Beethoven. The second is already a Bruckner symphony. And the third one I simply cannot describe. The Beethoven is more like a string concerto than a piano concerto. It’s in an area that’s so clear, so high. I can’t compare it with anything only the violin concerto by Beethoven. Of course, it’s a very different piece, but – and she says it in German – ‘Es ist im Himmel’, ‘It is in heaven’.”


Elisabeth Leonskaja plays with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall on Friday, and in Bantry House, Co Cork, on May 30.