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Doing it her way: Jeremy Siepman talks to the indomitable Valentina Lisitsa

January 8, 2013

Like so many ‘Russian’ virtuosos, Valentina Lisitsa could just about make you believe there was a piano in her cradle. There wasn’t, of course, but she was virtually born to the sound of it – as she told me, in her heavily accented but impressively fluent English: ‘My brother played the piano, and we lived in a very small apartment so, yes, I really heard music, and piano music in particular, right from the beginning of my life. It wasn’t until my late teens, though – very late – that I really knew music was the one thing I really wanted to do. I’d played the piano since I was a small child – but that’s not the same thing at all.’ And how small a child would that have been? ‘According to the precise calculations of my grandmother, I was exactly three years and eight months old!’ And approximately one year later she gave her first solo recital, playing the complete Album for the Young by Tchaikovsky – which, she adds, ‘seemed pretty big at the time.’ No-one meeting Lisitsa today will be the slightest bit surprised that she took to performing like the proverbial duck to water. Performance being the operative word. ‘I liked tremendously being on stage and performing for people. That’s what I liked. I didn’t like the practising part, or the lessons part, at all. Not at all!’ And though she continued to play in public – and have lessons – it was some time before either the piano or music itself could be said to have possessed her.

Born, raised and educated in Kiev, Lisitsa is impatient with stereotyped notions of ‘the Russian Piano Tradition’, which suggest a monolithic, all-embracing ‘school’. Russia, she points out, let alone the former Soviet Union, is an enormous country with many traditions. Insofar as she belongs to any, she would identify it as Ukrainian. ‘I never went to Moscow for a single lesson so I don’t have any first hand knowledge of what’s meant by “The Russian Piano School”. It was only after regaining independence of the Soviet Union that people in Kiev began to talk about a real distinction between the very “Russian” school exemplified by Moscow and the more European, classically based Ukrainian tradition, with its origins – some of its origins anyway – in the general approach of Leschetizky and the Vienna school – something a bit lighter, a bit more elegant than the “Russian” school. But it’s really not very clear cut, and politics certainly muddied the waters. The Russian tradition, as perceived in the West in modern times, started with all those big names, Richter and Gilels and the others; but later on it became something else – no longer about great art but about winning competitions. And boy they were good at it. The whole training process, especially at the Moscow Conservatory, and all those “feeder arms” of the Russian piano school – Kiev, Novosibirsk, whatever – was designed precisely to that end. Basically, from a very early start, children were specifically prepared to go and win competitions for Mother Russia and the Soviet Union. What it boiled down to, in innumerable cases, is that you had to bring to a state of perfection one or two Etudes by Chopin, one Prelude and Fugue by Bach, one Classical sonata, one Romantic sonata, one Liszt Etude, some Scriabin, Rachmaninov, you name it, one Classical concerto, one Romantic concerto – and you were stuck with this repertoire for a good fifteen years, until you could be awakened at night, hung upside down over a piano, and you could play it perfectly.’

If Lisitsa doesn’t count herself a product of the Moscow-based Russian tradition, the reasons are not what you might suppose: ‘Though I never left Kiev to study anywhere else, my teacher in Kiev had actually been a pupil of the famous Yakov Zak in Moscow, so that might look like some kind of connection. But actually I didn’t listen carefully to a single thing my teacher said! To tell the truth, I never did. I basically ignored all my teachers! I had my own mind, I knew how I wanted to do things. I deliberately used to do the exact opposite of what my teachers wanted.’

An unusual approach, to say the least. And did this strategy get her into trouble? ‘Of course! Yes! Yes. All the time. But you see, I am contrarian by nature. I did everything the opposite of what normal people do. Or at least I tried to. But not in an unpleasant way. I’m a generally friendly person, but I have my own way – and even now I often go against the flow.’ Did she feel, I wondered – does she feel now – that she was doing this almost compulsively? That there was, is, a kind of chronic rebellion in her character? ‘Again, yes. Absolutely yes. Sometimes I couldn’t cope with myself!’ She laughs. Lisitsa laughs easily, and infectiously.

Most virtuosos can look back on some kind of breakthrough moment in their careers: winning a competition, signing a big record contract, a particular concert in a particular hall etc. Lisitsa isn’t one of them. ‘That’s right. There really wasn’t a breakthrough. Things happened very gradually. I had opportunities to play. I played a lot. As I said, I loved to perform for people. But it’s more than that: What I really love most is communicating with people. Without that, for me, music just doesn’t come fully alive.’ Under the circumstances, it comes as no surprise to learn that Lisitsa and performance-nerves have been strangers from the start. ‘I can tell you honestly, stage fright has never entered my mind. What does trouble me sometimes is over-excitement, which can affect everything, from the way I come onstage and bow, to my playing itself. I could talk of some anxiety, perhaps, yes. But stage fright, never.’

Offstage, however, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and all it represented, anxiety was a pervasive element of daily life. ‘The Soviet Union was broken apart, we had this freshly independent country, and the new government showed absolutely no interest in supporting the arts. If you graduated from Kiev Conservatory, and didn’t leave the country, the best you could expect was to go and teach in some music school, which really didn’t appeal to me. Neither of my parents were musicians and they had no idea about professional possibilities, no influential connections or anything like that. My mother saw me becoming a teacher and having an easy and beautiful life. I saw something else.’

In 1992, Lisitsa and her husband-to-be took the gamble of a lifetime and embarked for the United States, where they would start again from scratch. ‘Absolutely. From scratch! I spoke no English, I had no career, and I had hardly any repertoire to speak of. But as it happened, we won the biggest duo-piano competition in the world, the Dranoff Competition in Florida. After that we were invited to come and study at Indiana University. Things were looking up. But we soon realised that the duo repertoire we’d be interested in playing is really so limited. Plus it’s really very difficult to have a career as a duo-pianist unless you do something else. Looking at the options, I decided to really get serious, at last, about becoming a solo pianist. But it was an afterthought, an expedient decision, born of necessity. The top priority at that point was to get visas which would allow us to stay in the States and not have to return to Ukraine. But we were just a couple of students, basically unemployed, living in a small apartment and using cardboard boxes as furniture. Anyway, I decided to enter some of the many competitions that were around, and very gradually people got to hear of me. So I suppose that was the glorious start of my solo career!’

Bizarrely, her repertoire at that point consisted of one concerto – the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor – and a sprinkling of virtuoso miniatures. ‘Hardly the foundations of a career! So in those years I was mainly taking engagements at the last minute, learning the necessary repertoire virtually overnight if I had to. Even though it was completely untrue, I gave everyone the impression that I already had a big repertoire! So life was very exciting for awhile. Fortunately I have an extremely quick, retentive memory, and today I have more than 40 concertos in my repertoire. I think my most daring feat was when I got a call from my agent saying that there’d been a cancellation in Indianapolis and they were asking if I could stand in. And did I have in my repertoire the Liszt E-flat Concerto and the Hungarian Fantasy. “Of course,” I said. “Excellent!” Actually, I’d never even seen the music. But we got it, I learned both works in less than three days, and the concert was a great success.’

But her real breakthrough was not to come from the concert hall or recordings, but through the more recent phenomenon of YouTube, which brought her playing, and her comely appearance, to an audience of previously unthinkable dimensions. The story is typically Lisitsian. ‘I’d had a career for some time in the United States. Sometimes it was up, sometimes it was down, down, down – for many reasons not related to music at all, like the death of my agent, and the birth of my son. I suddenly discovered myself as a new mother, without a single concert, no management, no media outlets, no CDs or recordings of any kind. I didn’t know what to do. I began searching for a new career – offering myself as a translator. It was definitely the low point of my life. But I decided to persevere, because music is what I love to do most, and from that moment when I regained my focus, it’s been the only thing I do. Falling back on what seemed at the time to be desperate measures, we decided to explore alternative outlets. And it paid off. Paid off big time. I was lucky because the YouTube age was just beginning, and I got quite a big following of people who would never have known about me otherwise. I think now my videos have had close to 50 million views – and I have thousands of subscribers. The internet is a wonderful place to communicate to people; people all over the world. In a traditional career, with few exceptions, you have to wait years for enough engagements to really establish a reputation, to get recordings, big contracts, big concerts and so forth. On YouTube and other outlets, it’s instantaneous.’

And does she enjoy recording? For YouTube and otherwise? ‘Oh yes. Of course the immediate audience is much smaller. The recording team behind the glass is my audience. I play to them – in exactly the same way as I play for two thousand in a hall. But there has to be someone. Fortunately, I have a really marvellous team of people that I work with – and a fabulous piano, too. Much better than I encounter in most halls. My favourite piano is a Bösendorfer – I have two at home, and they have a very special sound, but again I’m a bit contrarian. Some people love Bösendorfers, some actually hate them. But going back to recording, one of the wonderful features of the studio is that you never get cellphones and crying babies and so on. And perhaps best of all, if you’re not happy with something you can do it again! I never approach recording as microsurgery. I always record in big chunks. Whatever you think of them, my recordings are honest!’

And that includes the piece by Thalberg in her Naxos recital debut – a piece so difficult that a number of virtuosos, once approached, have refused to play it. But why Thalberg, of all people? Mainly remembered as a rival of Liszt, with whom he fought a pianistic duel, he is for most listeners today a totally unknown quantity. ‘My contrarian nature again! The piece takes seven or eight minutes to play, it has more notes per square inch than practically anything I’ve ever played, it’s unbelievably difficult, yet it sounds very elegant and light. Only pianists can know how difficult it is to play. It’s the only piece by Thalberg that I play – and the only ever will play!’

So why did she learn it in the first place? ‘I was invited a few years ago to play at the Bard Festival, which was celebrating Liszt and His World. And as part of his world we were invited to play not only Liszt but music by others which were related to his life. Among the pieces they’d programmed was this piece by Thalberg which had been declined by at least two other pianists before they came to me. “Sure,” I said, when they asked me, “Send it over!” My first reaction when I saw it was to send it straight back! I’d never played anything by this composer. But I learned it. After my performance, the director of the festival said to me “Well, I guess that’s one piece you’re never going to play again!” My reaction, contrarian as always, was to play it at every recital I gave for at least the next year, even at the Vienna Musikverein. It’s actually a very interesting piece. What’s more, I really had a good time learning it!’

And what of the other works in her programme? ‘The Naxos CD contains, as well, Beethoven’s Appassionata, Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Liszt’s Totentanz. This may look like a typical, virtuoso “debut” by an artist who wants to show how she can play different styles – but it really isn’t. It comes in fact from a programme to which I gave a great amount of thought and which I played in public recitals for a year. Missing from the CD is a block of Rachmaninov (Preludes and Etudes), which opened the programme, and after which I played the Beethoven. Then came the interval, followed Schumann, Thalberg and Liszt. I chose them because they are pieces that I love to perform.’

Valentina Lisitsa’s recital disc on Naxos is available worldwide from January 2013.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Valentina Lisitsa Biography & Discography

Ludwig van Beethoven Biography & Discography

Franz Liszt Biography & Discography

Robert Schumann Biography & Discography

Sigismond Thalberg Biography & Discography


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