sun 16/06/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja

theartsdesk Q&A: Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja

The great Russian pianist and Richter protégée talks Schubert and Chopin

Leonskaja playing Schubert at the 2010 Verbier FestivalAline Paley

Born in 1945 to Russian parents in Tbilisi, Georgia, Elisabeth Leonskaja gave her first major recital at the age of 11 and went on to study at the Moscow Conservatory, emigrating from the Soviet Union to Vienna in 1978 and making a sensational Salzburg Festival debut a year later.

Among several unsurpassable recordings are her partnership with the Borodin Quartet in Shostakovich's Piano Quintet, and she has always cited her duo work with the very choosy Richter as a formative influence in her musical life. Here they are playing the first movement of Mozart's Sonata facile K 545, with the outlandish second piano-part elaborations by Grieg:

Listen to Richter and Leonskaja play the Mozart-Grieg Sonata facile K 545:

In 2006 Leonskaja was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class, the highest award of its kind in Austria. She speaks an English accented between Russian and German, with a peppering of phrases in both languages, and all this in a vivacious and humorous manner very far removed from her austere, Minervan platform demeanour. Listening back to the interview she granted me between instalments of her Schubert sonatas cycle at the Verbier Featival, I realise I was probably too full of the impressions I'd just received, and too much the fan, but the short exchanges should not indicate any pauses or awkwardness, even if we were standing at a table in one of the hospitality tents with none too long a time between a radio interview and a photoshoot.

combinscAlinePaley_MG_8669At the time of our conversation, I'd just heard the fourth and fifth recitals in the series, which had been moved to Verbier's main, if temporary, auditorium, the vast Salle des Combins (pictured right) after, shall we say, certain problems in the Cinema where the opera masterclasses were taking place by day. I started by mentioning reports of a poor piano.

ELISABETH LEONSKAJA: [Whispers] Ach, it was terrible. Terrible. Really, I tried, but after the third concert I was so depressed, and I decided to go and say stop, stop it, really, because I give all my force and everything, and no result. No result! Acoustic also was bad.

DAVID NICE: Unfortunately none of the acoustics is perfect, is it? And even the church is so dark for those morning concerts, there's no natural light. I mean, when you think of the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, those 11am concerts…

Ach, Edimbourg, so beautiful.

You have all the best musicians here, but nowhere that really shows them to their best advantage.

Yes. But here [in the Salle des Combins] it’s not bad.

Yesterday your sound in the Schubert D 850 Sonata was so resonant.

Big, yes. For me, too quick: I think this wall which they built, it sends the sound back too quick.

An obvious question to begin with: why all the Schubert sonatas now?

First of all, this is the very first time for me, and the festival asked me to do it.

So you haven’t even played every Schubert sonata on different occasions?

Half were new. Mostly the earlier ones, of course, otherwise it would be impossible.

But it seemed to me that the day before yesterday when you played, was it D 459?, that seemed so authoritative...

Ah yes, how nice – all programme before yesterday was first time in my life, it’s wonderful, wonderful music.

And there’s so much originality, even in those earlier works. It struck me from the Adagio [the third of five movements in D 459] that you can never predict how the melody will develop, and the nuances are so extraordinary.

But I think this movement has to do with the quartets also, he is writing as if for a string quartet, all four voices are working together.

But melodically it’s so original, isn’t it? The enharmonic changes, the progressions are always unexpected...

The melody is very natural, but the feeling is great.

It must be difficult – as with Mozart [EL vigorously agrees], it struck me last night, it’s very difficult to find the right, natural tempo, the space, and this is what you uniquely have.

You are right. In Mozart, actually, it’s really impossible to reach that point. With Schubert, you sometimes have the feeling that you’re there, but with Mozart, never.

Sir Charles Mackerras, who died recently, was the only conductor I ever heard who conducted Mozart with that sense of rightness.

[Nods vigorously] Yes, I loved his Mozart – wonderful, wonderful. Absolutely.

And last night [with Marc Minkowski conducting the excellent Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra in Mozart's Symphony No 39] there were good things, but sometimes the tempo didn’t feel right. Richter always persuaded me of rightness, too. He's been my God in Schubert, and when I came to see you backstage at the Wigmore [after the Chopin recital reviewed on theartsdesk by Ismene Brown] I was sincere when I said that the last really great recital I'd heard was Richter's, in Chichester Cathedral, and he played the D 894 Sonata [EL assents wistfully] and he did all the repeats…

Of course, of course. And the first movement really very slowly.

Richter asked always to play more dolce, more piano, more piano, and I hope I get it with time

Did that inspire you, the way he played it?

2009_Photo_JoschwartzYes, surely. Now I think I’ve really found my own tempo in this sonata, but at the beginning I took it very slowly like he did, and that was not good for my music. It took me time to find my way.

Richter always said that you had to play all the repeats. Do you agree?

If someone did not play a repeat, his question was: "You don’t love Chopin? You don’t love Schubert? Why?" [Does humble pupil voice] "Yes, I love it." "But why don’t you repeat?" And very often he said, "You know, for the public everything is interesting, only for the musicians is it not interesting to repeat."

It struck me there was a problem with Imogen Cooper’s Schubert sonatas. I love her as a Schubert interpreter, but she has recorded D 960, and she doesn’t play the first movement exposition repeat. [EL gives an "oh", more in sorrow than disapproval] Even if there was no new music, it would be a problem for me.

But there is new music, it’s very interesting.

I was struck in the Wigmore recital how in the Chopin Third Sonata, too, you played all the repeats, in a huge programme.

Yes [laughs], it’s my fault, always to do too much, my programmes are huge.

Not at all. Because there's such concentration, the fact that your audience stays silent between the pieces, you give that feeling...

Probably. [Laughs.]

Can you say whether anything in the development of your playing has changed? The way you finish a movement or a work…

It’s very possible it changed. But I don’t know how, I can’t explain it. Of course, I’m working all the time on the music.

Do you feel that Schubert is one of the most essential composers throughout a life – that when you grow older, you feel more the closeness to death, the feelings of the later pieces?

I think I open more and more my heart, to get the breadth.

What about this division that's often made, between the early, middle and late sonatas?

There is really no sonata which is similar to another. Each I think is very different.

I hadn’t ever heard D 850 in concert before, the way you played it yesterday was like a man in full strength.

Full life energy, yes. [Sings the opening in a low voice] Ya ta ta ta taa-aa, ya ta ta taa-aa, what is it? I think it’s like angels with trumpets.

And then such delicacy after such weight – before I heard you play, I’d never thought of Schubert as similar to Brahms, is it Schoenberg who says that in Brahms the epic and the lyric exist side by side?

Yes, probably those contrasts exist in my Schubert anyway, but I think that in this acoustic, it’s much more pronounced, that the piano is really open and the sound really is flying, sometimes to keep it in was not so easy.

Can we talk about specific sonatas?

51WLhEaxTPL._SS400_They are all so very different. Some sonatas are like Haydn, for example the A-flat major [D 557] – this is nearly Haydn, you’re sure it is if you don’t know it’s Schubert. And the first from the day before yesterday, the B major [D 575], also. Or from yesterday, the E minor [D 566] – this is Schubert absolutely throughout the first movement, but the second movement also is Schubert, but in imitation of Beethoven’s Op 90, how he’s written it, the result is different, but the idea is coming from there. And this is really the fascination now to see which ideas he’s taking at any moment, and what’s yet to come.

It’s funny, isn’t it, because every 10 or so bars there’s an identifiable Schubert progression or phrase, you always feel his individuality.

Absolutely, absolutely. More or less, but it’s always there – his face, his profile [laughs].

And yesterday, in the slow movement of the D 850, suddenly the chords became incredibly modern. How do you physically manage a colossal piece like that? You seem very relaxed at the keyboard.

I have to be relaxed to manage it – if I am too close, I am not able. I have to keep it at any moment. But I would not say this is distance – it’s just a necessity.

And the contrast between loud and soft, do you have to make a physical adjustment?

Of course.

Because with some pianists you feel the weight is from the shoulders, but I’m not sure when I watch you. When you played the Schumann Concerto at the Barbican, you almost rolled over the piano.

You mean probably in the last movement, ya ta ta-tee ta ta… but this is for me unusual: Schumann concerto most pianists play as teenager. I never played it, I learned it probably 10 years ago or more, and I never saw the score before, and I was so surprised, to see – this is a waltz [a lot of singing now, which you need to hear to understand], it has no energy, and then it breaks out: the full march. And then you can keep the weight… This is really a very hard concerto, I must say, to manage these levels of energy.

Is it possible for you to say which of the Schubert sonatas, or the movements, you find especially significant? Or is it just that they’re all so different?

You know, no. Probably the most original – originels – original'nie – are the slow movements of D 959 and D 960 [the last two]. You know I played some years ago all three last sonatas at the Wigmore.

Ah, I came late to the cult of Leonskaja. I met some of your fans yesterday, the people who travel all over the world.

Ah, that’s for them. It’s not necessary for me that I know all about it. You know, if I follow someone, I keep myself back – I don't come every evening to say, "Hello, I’m here" – no, no.

I came to see you at the Wigmore because I was so moved by that concert.

This is different. But the people who follow me everywhere [goes cross-eyed], it can be very boring.

Listen to Richter playing Schubert's Piano Sonata D 960:

I was thinking of Richter in that slow movement of D 960. It had the most hypnotic effect. And your playing of the Chopin, the slow movement of the Third Sonata, had something of that quality, which is so...

Olympic, yes, Olympian [sighs in amazement].

Maybe this isn’t true for you as a performer, because you’re having to perform it, but for me as a listener, it felt like a proper transcendental meditation, in that it’s possible to go deeper and deeper as you listen.

Or higher and higher as you play [laughs].

So do you ever lose yourself, or is the intellect always at work?

You have to be there because this is really the improvisation of Chopin, in this place he’s changing something very small, say in one voice, and you have to find a different space there. Of course. And then he’s writing specially in this middle part of the slow movement, very interesting how he’s writing all voices. It’s not just writing the melody, he’s feeling A major, also the harmonies within [another detailed singing demonstration], and he was so precise, if he’s writing something about the pedalling, you have to follow him, otherwise you have a really different effect.

There’s no sentimentality.

Nooooo, no, no.

You see, we had Maria João Pires playing some of the Nocturnes at the Proms a couple of weeks ago...

She inclines to the sentimental, she’s very good and proud, but she’s sentimental. You’re right.

And I did think, I did enjoy it very much, she played Nocturnes at 10 o'clock at night in the Albert Hall.

Mmm, nice.

The hall was completely full.


But between the Nocturnes, in spite of her request, people clapped.

Oh, weh!

And I thought, with you they wouldn’t have done.

But with 7,000 it isn’t possible – and this is for people, this concert – let them!

During each piece, there was total concentration. I was surprised, I like solo instruments in the Albert Hall – big orchestras less. Are you very careful about where you play?

No, I follow invitations. [Laughs.]

So you’re not like Richter who would choose special churches or unusual venues.

But that’s also interesting. And I think Richter’s time was a different time, yet now there are also so many special places.

I couldn’t believe in the magazine Diapason that was handed out here how many hundreds of small music festivals there are in France.

And you know, France has so many wonderful Romanesque churches to play in, with great acoustics. Richter used to choose them well.

So what remains for you from the time you played with Richter? You say you’ve evolved your own ideas, but what lessons still survive?

Probably the possibility to play pianissimo [laughs], because he asked all the time to play more dolce, more piano, more piano, and I hope I get it with time. Not immediately, because my inclination was to get less piano, and I had to hear it, to feel.

Do you listen to other pianists much?

If I can, yes. I love my colleagues, it’s always interesting.

Do you have any one you particularly admire?

Radu Lupu [sighs affectionately], Sokolov, very interesting also, and many others, just to hear the directions that they’re taking.

And then we went out onto the balcony for a photo session, and ended up having another interesting conversation, unrecorded, about Prokofiev. The recital the following evening brought a much bigger audience in the hall, and an instantaneous standing ovation for her majestic performance of the "Gasteiner" Sonata. Plus another of the Schubert encores she played every night. Here, to end, is one from Gstaad, filmed earlier in the year, of the E-flat Impromptu. It's not note-perfect, but you do get the sense of space and freedom.

Watch Leonskaja play Schubert's E-flat Impromptu:

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters