English profiles

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....