Virsaladze first learnt the piano from her grandmother Anastasia Virsaladze, a well-known teacher and pupil of Annette Essipov (1851–1914), beginning at the comparatively late age of eight at the Tiflis School for Gifted Children and then continuing her studies with her grandmother at the Tiflis Conservatory. She had a natural technique, rarely needing to study technical exercises, and from the age of eleven began work on the études of Chopin. Virsaladze finished her studies with Heinrich Neuhaus and Yakov Zak at the Moscow Conservatory and made her public debut in Tiflis at the age of sixteen; the following year she won a silver medal at the World Youth Festival in Vienna. After receiving third prize at the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition when she was twenty, Virsaladze went on to win first prize at the Schumann Competition in Zwickau when she was twenty-four.
From the 1980s Virsaladze has regularly toured abroad. On her first visit to London she played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov where she gave ‘a display of dare-devil virtuosity’. During the 1980s she returned to Britain to tour with the USSR Symphony Orchestra, and again to perform with many of the British orchestras including the Bournemouth Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony and the Philharmonia. She has appeared at the Berlin Festival and the Prague Spring Festival, and has toured Japan and the United States of America.
Virsaladze’s repertoire is predominantly drawn from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, featuring particularly the music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann; but she also plays modern Russian composers including Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Today Virsaladze (whose name is spelt Elisabeth Wirssaldze in Germany) is a regular member on juries of many competitions throughout the world. She also frequently tours Europe, in 2002–2003 giving recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall and at the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan, and has also played with orchestras in North America, Russia, Japan and Europe. She has appeared with many conductors including Kyrill Kondrashin, Riccardo Muti, Kurt Sanderling, Yevgeni Svetlanov and Rudolf Barshai, and also performs regularly with cellist Natalia Gutman.
Virsaladze’s first recordings were made for Melodya in Russia. She recorded works by Schumann (including Carnaval Op. 9 and Kreisleriana Op. 16), Chopin, Liszt (including the Rhapsodie Espagnole), and some of Mozart’s piano concertos with the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra. She was included in BMG’s Russian Piano School Series as Volume 18, which features recordings of Chopin from 1965 and 1973. The performance on this compact disc of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58 is extremely fine, with Virsaladze emphasising strong muscular lines, rich tone and structural control.
Recently, the Live Classics label has issued discs of Virsaladze in live performances given mainly during the 1990s. The other musicians the label produces are Sviatoslav Richter, Oleg Kagan and Igor Zhukov, so Virsaladze is in exalted company. Of the fourteen releases to date, there are recitals from the Wigmore Hall in London which include sonatas by Brahms and Schubert and three concert studies by Liszt, as well as concerts in Japan, Milan, and Moscow. The repertoire is of Virsaladze’s favourites: Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Chopin, with some Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Liszt. All the Live Classics discs contain playing of a high standard, displaying Virsaladze’s flawless technique, sympathetic style, and understanding of the music she chooses to play. One of the earliest recordings is of the complete Chopin études from 1985 in Moscow; these are impressive for their accuracy and technical aplomb. Among the best of these discs is a Chopin recital recorded in Nagoya in 1999 where Virsaladze plays a selection of waltzes, mazurkas, polonaises, the Barcarolle Op. 60 and the Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49.
In great demand as a teacher, since she continues the tradition of the Russian school of piano playing which she learnt from Neuhaus and Zak, Virsaladze has taught at the Moscow Conservatory since the late 1960s and also teaches at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. She continues the great line of Russian performer-teachers that goes back to the days of the founding of musical education in Russia by the Rubinstein brothers.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).