You grew up after World War II in Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Was that an optimistic time to be learning music?
Absolutely. Georgia was really a very friendly land. My parents arrived there towards the end of the war. They were from Odessa, but I was born in Georgia. My mother, she had studied piano and she absolutely wanted me to do it as well. I was very keen, and it was very easy to begin. I started at music school when I was seven and continued from there without stopping. I was at music school for five years and then at the conservatory. And then at 18 I moved to Moscow.
What made you move to Moscow?
I wanted to continue and I wanted to learn new things. I must say that Tbilisi is really a very nice place. It has a nice tradition for piano music with old connections to St. Petersburg and to Moscow. And really now you see how many wonderful pianists have come from there. But in my time, I was absolutely sure I had to change to Moscow to continue.
And how different did you find Moscow?
The level of playing around me was very different. I was very surprised. For example, in Tbilisi, you learnt a new piece and if you were ready you would play it by heart. In Moscow you had to play it by heart at the first lesson. This was very new for me, but the challenge was good.
Photo by Aline Paley
What music were you first drawn to?
I played many works by Soviet composers: Kabalevsky, Maykapar – very easy pieces. But also a lot of Czerny and Kuhlau. This is the Russian school for children.
So what were your teachers like in Moscow?
Wonderful, wonderful, I can really only say the best about them. My teacher was a really nice person, Jacob Milstein – nothing to do with Nathan Milstein. He was taught by Igumnov, and Igumnov was a pupil of Siloti. So there is a line right back to Franz Liszt. He also wrote a lot of books, including a really huge biography of Liszt, as well as books about Bach and Chopin. He was a very modest and quiet person.
You are also a keen player of chamber music. Were there particular colleagues you played with in those days?
Yes, I played a lot of violin sonatas with Oleg Kagan and Schubert trios with Kagan and Mischa Maisky. At that time in Moscow there was not so much chamber music, compared to now in the West, with all the festivals. We still played it, but not so much.
Did you get to meet any of the great Soviet composers of that period?
In the 1950s I met Heinrich Neuhaus in Tbilisi when I was in Georgia. In Moscow I also met Kachaturian and I knew Schnittke very well. I asked him why he did not write a lot for piano and he just said that piano was not his instrument. In the ‘60s, as students, there was the possibility to play for Shostakovich. I visited him probably two or three times to play chamber music. I never played the piano concertos for him but I played the Violin Sonata and the Alexander Blok songs for soprano and trio. Shostakovich was very modest with us. He never said, “No, this is not right,” or anything like that, he probably just asked us to change something. He was never really critical. His 24 Preludes and Fugues are an absolutely great opus and his Second Piano Sonata – this is a great work.
You became a very successful young piano player. Were you ever held back by the Soviet politics of that period?
Of course, but as a child you don’t feel anything. You are happy and you know what you do. You don’t think, “This is a Soviet country.” You don’t feel it. You have your parents, you have your friends, you have music, you have school and you are happy. And education was really excellent there.
“My mother was jewish, and I really felt it. I felt it affect how many concerts I got and where I had to play. the minister of culture told you where you had to go“
However, I left the Soviet Union in the 1970s. My mother was Jewish, and really I felt it. I felt it affect how many concerts I got and where I had to play. When I moved to Moscow I had already won the Enescu Prize, so I had some concerts. But after studying at the conservatory there was no possibility of finding a position somewhere myself. The Minister of Culture told you where you had to go. For me it was not a possibility to stay in Moscow. They told me I had to go to a small city, 300 kilometres from Moscow, to be a soloist in the Philharmonic Society there. I was very lucky, because at this time I had an examination for aspirantura – I think now everybody says ‘concert exam’ or something like that – so I was able to stay two years longer in Moscow.
What made you choose Vienna?
Many, many Jewish people from Russia moved to Israel, but the way was through Vienna. I had played already three times in Vienna. It was all for organised concerts. By chance I got my visa nine days before my concert in Vienna and I only really arrived the day before. I went directly from the airport to the Vienna Symphony. I was so excited about this city. It was really music, music, music. I’ve lived here ever since.
People describe you as “from the Russian school”. What does that mean to you?
To me, it means virtuosity and to be profound. To be free inside.
How would you say the Russian school differs from the Western traditions?
I’m not so impressed, to be honest, with the piano school in the West. Of course, in each country it’s different. French culture is much more interesting. German culture, I don’t really understand it – there is no virtuosity. It probably has to do with their repertory. We Russians have to play always Rachmaninov, Liszt, Chopin and our technique is different. Here in Austria, and in Germany, they play Mozart and Haydn a lot, which is wonderful, but it doesn’t bring anything to your virtuosity, to how you play the instrument.
As a pianist you now have an enormous amount of experience. What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned?
To play very expressively but with control. Experience in life helps me a lot. Years ago, I played all of the sonatas by Mozart and, to be honest, I was lost. I was lost because each Opus is different and you have to work differently on each one. It was too much for me. I would like to go back and play this cycle again with the new experience – or the old experience – I have now.
Are there any works you would like to perform that you haven’t had a chance to?
I performed only once, for example, Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano Op. 25 and now, just after my visit to Australia, I will perform it again in a recital in the Musikverein. I think it’s absolutely important to perform this piece more and more. This is absolutely great music, but it’s very difficult to create a good sound and to show how logical it is. It’s really exciting for me. I will play it between Beethoven’s Fantasia and the Tempest Sonata.
You’re playing Mozart with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. What draws you back to Mozart over and over again?
I think we really have to turn to Mozart every year and every week. Playing Mozart is really different – this extremely romantic feeling inside, and the absolutely classical way of playing it. How you produce the sound, how you use the pedal, and the phrasing… this is really work without end.
Elisabeth Leonskaja tours Australia with the ACO, August 26-September 7