Mu­sic that Changed Me

Pi­anist

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Pi­anist Elis­a­beth Leon­skaja

BORN IN 1945 in Tbil­isi, Ge­or­gia, Elis­a­beth Leon­skaja per­formed her first con­cert with an orches­tra at the age of 11. A pupil and friend of the pi­anist Svi­atoslav Richter, while still a stu­dent at the Moscow Con­ser­va­tory she won prizes at the Enescu, Mar­guerite Long and Queen Elis­a­beth pi­ano com­pe­ti­tions. In 1978 she em­i­grated from the Soviet Union to Vi­enna. Leon­skaja ap­pears at this year’s East Neuk Fes­ti­val, per­form­ing works by Schu­bert, on 29 June and 1 July.

Tbil­isi, or Ti­flis as it was called when I was a child, is a very musical city. My par­ents moved there from Odessa at the end of World War Two, hav­ing lost ev­ery­thing when their home was de­stroyed. We had no means of mak­ing mu­sic at home, so my first musical ex­pe­ri­ences were from go­ing to con­certs with my mother. I was six when I heard Lazar Ber­man play PROKOFIEV’S Pi­ano Con­certo No. 1. The way this great man strode straight to the pi­ano – and the orches­tra then im­me­di­ately started – shocked me. Yet I en­joyed the per­for­mance: such fresh and alive mu­sic was some­thing new for me.

One day I came home from nurs­ery and there was a pi­ano. Im­me­di­ately, with­out know­ing why, I started to cry. My first five years of pi­ano lessons were with an old lady who had stud­ied in St Peters­burg but now lived in Tbil­isi. Play­ing the pi­ano came very eas­ily for me; it was only when I went to the Moscow Con­ser­va­tory that I re­ally be­came con­scious of what I was do­ing. The level of play­ing by all the stu­dents there was so very high. Yet I eas­ily made friend­ships, many of them life­long, in­clud­ing with vi­o­lin­ist Gi­don Kre­mer, pi­anist Oleg Maisen­berg and the vi­o­lin­ist Oleg Ka­gan, whom I mar­ried. I lis­tened to great per­form­ers in the Con­ser­va­tory’s Great Hall, but I was also par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by a record­ing by pi­anist Ru­dolf Serkin – BRAHMS’S Sec­ond Con­certo – which I bought when I was trav­el­ling in the West aged about 18 or 19.

Shostakovich is one of my most for­ma­tive in­flu­ences. For me his mu­sic em­bod­ies Rus­sia – north Rus­sia par­tic­u­larly. I vis­ited him two or three times at his home and played his mu­sic to him; and two months be­fore he died, Oleg and I recorded SHOSTAKOVICH’S Vi­o­lin Sonata and the Alexan­der Blok cy­cle in the Great Hall. He was with us all day while we recorded. He was very friendly, and so po­lite – I never knew whether he was happy with us or not.

My first piece with the Borodins – the old Borodin Quar­tet, that is – was Shostakovich’s Quin­tet. It was a very im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ence for me be­cause at this time I was more a soloist. At the end of our first re­hearsal, Valentin Ber­lin­sky, the cel­list, said ‘Look, she is play­ing in a very Ro­man­tic way – but this is also pos­si­ble!’ I had to think a long time about what he meant. Shostakovich’s mu­sic is very dif­fer­ent from what most pi­anists are used to, par­tic­u­larly if you are used to Liszt, as I had been. Shostakovich is dif­fer­ent be­cause his har­monies are de­ter­mined by the poly­phonic move­ment of the in­di­vid­ual lines. You have to pay more at­ten­tion to all the de­tails of the mu­sic, and not just the melody.

I first met pi­anist Svi­atoslav Richter at the end of the 1960s. He was due to per­form with vi­o­lin­ist David Ois­trakh, but there was no time to re­hearse, so Richter asked my hus­band to re­hearse the pro­gramme with him: Bartók’s Sec­ond Sonata and Prokofiev. My hus­band didn’t talk a lot about mu­sic with me. But when he did, his words were sim­ple, yet pro­found. Richter was not a teacher, he was an artist who al­ways tried to find the ‘Open Se­same’ – the small point which opens ev­ery­thing.

This ap­proach is par­tic­u­larly valid for

SCHU­BERT, whose mu­sic is in some ways more dif­fi­cult than Beethoven. Once you’ve un­der­stood Beethoven’s sym­phonic style you find all the cor­ners of his mu­sic. But no two of Schu­bert’s pi­ano sonatas are the same. You find a pro­gres­sion from the first sonatas to the late sonatas, and there are un­be­liev­able con­trasts. Think of Schu­bert’s C ma­jor Reliquie Sonata, where you have only two move­ments: this work, par­tic­u­larly the first move­ment, is proto-bruck­ner. In­ter­view by Daniel Jaffé

last­ing im­pres­sion: ‘For me, Shostakovich’s mu­sic em­bod­ies Rus­sia’

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