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An Interview with the Pianist Valentina Lisitsa

Thursday, 7 November 2013 , ora 9.43
The Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who became famous after posting videos of her interpretations on YouTube – she was over 30 years old at the time – and who nowadays works with record companies such as Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, gave a recital at the Romanian Athenaeum on 5th November, 2013. An interview conducted by Maria Monica Bojin.

You studied piano at the Lysenko Music School for Gifted Children and at the Kiev Conservatory. However, you didn’t wish music to become your profession. Why not?

I started to study music at the age of 3 years and 8 months; that is an advanced age for a child prodigy! And, anyway, I had already failed in a few fields – ballet, figure skating…For me, music meant something that I could do very easily – memorize, learn the notes, the technique.

Then, I got into this prestigious school, but the problem was that somewhere there was a conflict, and that is why I stated I didn’t know that I wanted to make music. Up to a point, musical education resembled sports training – success was measured by the number of medals and diplomas won in competitions. In a sports competition there are so many discussions until the members of the jury can reach a decision – art and technique are very difficult to separate. When it comes to music, this is perhaps a hundred times more difficult. How can one measure success in a music competition? With a chronometer? By using criteria such as ‘the fastest playing’, ‘the loudest’ or ‘the most accurate’? Actually, I enjoyed this side of musical education. I am a competitive nature and I enjoyed participating in all those competitions. But they never focused on art, on the magic of true music. It was a kind of sport, and I was already involved in sports, anyway – I was running for the school’s team and I was attending chess classes. With chess, everything is much easier: if you know more, you win; if you don’t, you lose.

Everything changed when I realized that I can be an artist rather than an ‘athlete’, ‘running’ along the white and black keys. It also took a change in the mental attitude: in a competition, you need to be liked – by the audience, by the jury – so all your interpretations become standard, they all represent a continuous search for perfection, you don’t have to be different or not mainstream, you have to do nothing that would raise controversy. But art has nothing to do with the need to be liked; art is about taking risks, bringing something new. You don’t necessarily have to be eccentric, but you need to be brave and find your own voice rather than the voice everybody expects to hear.

Starting to upload on YouTube videos that I recorded at home, releasing them into the unknown and waiting to see if someone would take an interest in them – that was my manner of finding an audience. In music, in art, there are no absolute truths, you can’t say ‘this is how it’s done and this is the only way’. Fortunately, tastes are quite different and, if some dislike my interpretation while others enjoy it, this is all right with me. And now, there are 66 million people who viewed my videos – not all of them liked my interpretations, there were probably some who searched for other musicians, but the important thing is to be heard.

One of the reasons why I uploaded videos on YouTube was because I wanted to attract people to live music. There is nothing like a live concert. That magic moment when we all set out on a fantastic journey and the silence in the concert hall – not that polite silence, but the lack of any noise when we feel transported to another universe – these are the moments I live for.

You also write the brochures for the works in your repertoire. What aspects of the music do you want to emphasize?

Music doesn’t exist in a void. ‘Classical’ can be a scary word: it makes us think of those composers with marble statues and the mandatory wig. But this is not the highbrow music. ‘Classical’ means the opposite of ‘commercial’ and, if in the case of pop music, fashions come and go, you can’t say about Beethoven that he is fashionable or not, Beethoven transmits the same message today that he transmitted in his time. It’s important to know music within a wider context, that of the cultural heritage, history. I’ll give you an example. The events depicted in March to the Scaffold, in Fantasy Symphony by Berlioz have no meaning for us, but for the French at the middle of the 19th century they were charged with significance: Berlioz’s contemporaries belonged to that generation that was trying to come to terms with the Reign of Terror, many of the listeners had lost relatives during those tragic events – imagine how they felt listening to a music that described the fall of a guillotine. The same can be said about Shostakovich’s music: people living during those terrible times had a different insight into his music, they knew what it was all about. This is also the case of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach – their creation can’t be taken out of the context. That is why it is important to provide a brochure that offers not only opus numbers, but also information on what was going on with the world at that moment.

For a recital in the United States of America you expressed the wish to play on a Bösendorfer piano. Was this something you preferred at that moment or is Bösendorfer your favourite piano brand?

Bösendorfer is my absolute choice. The standard concert piano is Steinway, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only good piano. Bösendorfer gives music a special quality. I am comfortable with and I can play well on a Steinway, but Bösendorfer has a different palette of ‘colours’, I feel that it has a darker, more somber tonality – it’s what I prefer when it comes to the repertoire, generally works in minor tonalities. Thus, I try to get more somber tones out of the piano I play on and if with other instruments you have to make an effort to reach this range, Bösendorfer already has it. I share my passion for Bösendorfer with so many artists: if I had to mention some of the musicians I learned a lot from, my idols, one of them would be Wilhelm Backhaus and there are YouTube videos where this maestro, renowned for his interpretation of Brahms and Beethoven, plays on a Bösendorfer.

You are considered Rachmaninoff’s descendant: your interpretations sound just like those of the great composer. Was this on purpose or was it an intuitive approach?

Both, in a way! My relationship with Sergei Rachmaninoff is somewhat ambiguous – love and hate…I have enjoyed his music ever since I was a child, but the one written for other instrument than the piano. I liked his Songs – I used to sing them and play them on the piano at the same time. This musical genre, the song, resembles the Rosetta stone: through it, by means of the poetical text chosen, you understand what the composer wanted to communicate in his whole creation. For example, Mozart with the opera Don Giovanni: those arias are like an open book of his personality, and it’s not only that solar, cheerful Mozart. Don Giovanni is a comedy, isn’t it? In fact, it’s a drama – very profound and dark, even if the music seems merry. Rachmaninoff’s Songs gave me clues about how his music, his musical phrases should sound like. I didn’t want to interpret his works because they are warhorses – everybody plays them in competitions. I had no wish to participate with his works in a competition. After coming to the United States, I was asked to play one of his concertos, and then I thought of listening to an interpretation by Rachmaninoff himself, something I hadn’t really done before. In fact, I wanted to rehearse together with the orchestra, so I played the CD and I was playing along with Rachmaninoff. To my amazement, I realized that, without having known his interpretative style beforehand, we had the same tempo, the same phrasing, even the same breaks. We were playing together as if we shared the same soul – strange coincidences! This made me want to find out more about the way he interpreted his music, and this is another special detail: there are passionate debates about how Chopin intended to play an ornament or about the tempo Beethoven would have preferred for a certain work (despite the metronome suggestions we find in his scores), but we have no recordings of composers interpreting their own creations. In the case of Rachmaninoff, the fantastic pianist, one of the best in the world, these sound documents exist. Studying his interpretation, his phrasing and the way he connected the notes, I understood better the manner in which he wished his music to be heard. So here’s another Rachmaninoff, other than the common ‘caricature’: an author of the 20th century who was nostalgic and composed in a melodious and romantic style, belonging to the previous century; a depressed and melancholic Russian, prey to permanent suffering. Rachmaninoff in his recordings is the exact opposite of this ‘caricature’: he didn’t use very powerful sonorities, his style didn’t have excessive emotion like a soap-opera, was not hyper-sentimental, feminine and passionate. His interpretation is moderate, very clear, transparent and aristocratic. If I were to describe Rachmaninoff in a single word, I would use ‘aristocratic’ – in fact, he was descended from a noble family – and this is the real Rachmaninoff for me.

Maria Monica Bojin
Translated by Mihaela Olinescu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, The University of Bucharest