Music that Changed Me
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’