Dec 4th 2023

Elisabeth Leonskaya: ‘I do not play to be loved. It’s about the music!’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

Elisabeth Leonskaya is widely viewed as one of the greatest living pianists. With a career of some 75 years behind her, she has built up a reputation as a specialist in Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven and others. Her recordings number in the dozens and she is in great demand for performances in Europe.

In a relaxed and revealing interview, I asked her why she has not taken the usual path, seeking a bigger name in the United States. “Probably they don’t need me,” she said. Her ambition is to organize a tour of China, where she finds the people “really alive”.

Playing in Bordeaux last week as a key event in the annual festival l’Esprit du piano, she filled the recently opened Auditorium. She played Beethoven’s last three sonatas, taking a brief bow between each but remaining onstage without an interval.

The audience gave her a rapturous reception with extended applause, shouts of “Bravo” and stomping. She seemed grateful but unmoved. She said in the interview she does not play to be loved. She plays for the music.

A laureate of several piano competitions, including the Queen Elisabeth, Enescu and the Marguerite Long, she has a flourishing solo career and also appears frequently in chamber ensembles.

 

A protégée and close friend of the late Svaitoslav Richter, she recalls that she learned a great deal from him, including how to keep calm and play quietly. She has not always observed that advice, however, as her Bordeaux recital showed. She gave a bravura performance with full fortissimos as Beethoven intended.

In this video clip, playing the Mozart “Sonate Facile” K 545 expanded by Edvard Grieg, her warm relationship with Richter is evident:

 

 

Seated in a quiet corner of a Bordeaux hotel last week, we had an interview – more a casual chat – about her life, her Soviet Russian origins, her career, her future:

 

You drew wild applause at your performance in Bordeaux. I know you don’t really care.

This is not the point.  If we are on the stage it is for the music. You don’t play to the Auditorium. It’s for everybody -- the moment I think I am playing for somebody it doesn’t work for me.

Do you lose yourself in the music?

In a word, my technique is concentration.

 

Elisabeth Leonskaya
Elisabeth Leonskaya by the author Michael Johnson

Doesn’t your love affair with the piano go back to childhood?

I have played the piano since 7, and gave my first public performance at 11. It was normal in Russia at the time. In Japan, you know, they start you at just 3 years old.

Has your playing changed since you emigrated and grew as an artist in the West?

For sure. But I don’t really know in what way. It’s a slow process but yes I play differently now… I hope.

You have recently brought out a double CD of Robert Schumann’s piano music. How do you feel about his love of magic, spirituality and contact with the dead, including Beethoven?

First, he was a genius. Second he was very ill. It was sad for everyone, especially for Clara. His energy was extreme.

Can you cite a piece that shows his illness combined with his genius?

It’s everywhere. Everywhere.

Your repertoire has continued to broaden during your 76 years of performance.

 

I don’t feel so.

Are you preparing to record anything that you have not already done?

Yes, I am working on four or five Mozart sonatas that will be packaged in a double CD box.

You don’t seem to be playing anything by living composers. Do you find contemporary music unsuitable for you?

I perform it, I perform it. The Alfred Schnittke piano concerto, for example. And I have played Dmitri Smirnoff. The keyboard artist and conductor Jörg Widmann I have performed. He is composer in residence of the Berlin Philharmonic. But I am not really a pianist for all repertoire. I work on compositions I admire and love.

You have lived in Austria for 45 years. Do you still sound like a Russian player today?

You know about the so-called Russian School. There are all kinds of Russian players and they are all different. It’s wrong to say they all have one voice one school.

You left Russia in 1978. International borders were closed. How did you slip out without trouble?

There were always little openings. Jews were often allowed to go to Vienna, then onward to Israel. My mother was Jewish. I stayed in Vienna where I had already performed three times. I knew people and was welcomed. But it was not spontaneous. I went there ten days before the concert.

You must have been of interest to police, the KGB?

Everybody talks about Russian police, the KGB. But every country has its police. They are all the same, just different colors. This is my opinion.

Are you concerned about the crowding of the music scene in the West? Isn’t there a kind of tsunami of pianists coming from Japan, South Korea and especially China?

No. The modern world is open. Internationalism is upon us and it is not a problem. The Asians send us their young musicians to learn our music, our styles. There is room for everybody.

And then they take their knowledge back home?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. This is democracy.

You rarely play in Asia. You made only one tour, some years ago. Why is that?

That was enough for me. But I would love any day to go to China. They have a good audience. And they have built new concert halls with emphasis on acoustics. They are really alive. This is my feeling.

Why not in the United States?

They probably don’t need me. (Laughs) I played in Cleveland once with their wonderful orchestra, in a wonderful hall. But there is too much air conditioning and the city of Cleveland was boring.

 

Aren’t you living in a suitcase most of the time now?

Well, I am a Sagittarius.

Why not retire?

Again, boring.

You are 78. How much longer can you keep up this pace?

I will tell you in ten years.

How do you want to be remembered?

 

I never think of that. I will leave my work behind. Anyway I am not here to be loved but to make music. Of course if somebody likes you …

People will remember you, that’s for sure

 

You never know.

 

END

 

 

 

 

 


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