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 Interview, Valentina Lisitsa on Tchaikovsky

Valentina LisitsaAlthough Tchaikovsky is undeniably a household name among music-lovers, his fame has always rested mostly on his orchestral music, above all his symphonies and ballet music. There is, though, an astonishing wealth of works by him for the piano - miniatures, impromptus, folksong arrangements and transcriptions of larger compositions. The Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa has recently recorded the whole gamut of these infrequently-heard pieces for Decca, with the aim of bringing them to a wider audience.

Valentina spoke to me earlier in the month about how this album came to be, and how Tchaikovsky's writing for solo piano relates to his other compositions.

There are a number of Russian pianist-composers - Rubinstein, Scriabin and above all Rachmaninov – but Tchaikovsky is not generally considered to be one of them. Where did the idea come from to focus on his piano works, rather than those of a composer more closely associated with the piano?

First of all a disclaimer: it wasn’t my idea! When Decca floated this idea a couple of years ago, I was initially very reluctant to do it. They had been challenging me with all the wild repertoire – Glass, Nyman and others – so my first reaction to Tchaikovsky was 'but what is there to play?'. And now having done it, diving headfirst into this immense ocean of music I’m just in a state of disbelief!

In a sense I blame the world-famous Tchaikovsky Competition for this: they made all of us believe that there isn’t really much to play. It’s one of the top piano competitions - every winner becomes famous - and yet they’re extremely general in what they require musicians to play. If you enter the Chopin Competition, you essentially just play nothing but Chopin, and of course there’s a sea of wonderful music by him but there are also some obscure works and you have to play those too. And if you enter the Liszt Competition you play Liszt, and if you enter the Brahms Competition you play Brahms… and so on. With the Tchaikovsky you are required to play one short piece, one chamber piece and of course one concerto by him, which in 99% of cases means the Concerto No. 1, which is why it’s so popular. But there’s no knowledge of his output beyond The Seasons and maybe Dumka and a few other works; nobody has taken that challenge seriously.

It's interesting to compare him with Rachmaninov in this regard: consider how many people play his music today, but his First Sonata only came into vogue in the last decade or so. So you need to not only have the desire to investigate, but also to have people who will champion the music. Now there is a lineup of great musicians doing Rachmaninov – Boris Berezovsky and Nikolai Lugansky, to name just two – and making recordings which are quickly becoming the gold standard. And this is why people want to play Rachmaninov; they discover through these recordings that there is a world beyond the Preludes and the Second Sonata, which was championed so much by Horowitz. The reason nobody knows the First Sonata is because Horowitz didn’t perform it! In a way I hope that same thing happens with Tchaikovsky. There’s something for everyone – from the very beginners, up to the most challenging pieces, both big and small.

Do you hear a different side of Tchaikovsky’s musical style or personality in these piano works, compared with his larger orchestral compositions?

Absolutely, yes – the public person and the private person. With the piano pieces it’s similar to Chopin’s case (though Chopin didn’t write anything big and symphonic) in that they are like private diaries: there is a whole chunk of what we’d call salon music. It would never be played on the concert stage but rather in the privacy of someone’s drawing-room. And this is true for many composers of that period; many of the works of Liszt, for example, were not intended for the big stage, and that's also true of the late piano pieces of Brahms. Tchaikovsky of course had mixed feelings about Brahms; he said he despised him, but at the same time there’s great Brahmsian influence on his piano pieces and very strong parallels everywhere.

Lots of this music is very salon-like; it assumes an audience that is more sophisticated, rather than one that can be won over by artistic and technical effects, in a context of just quiet private listening. We always talk about Tchaikovsky’s great symphonies because they’re what we hear all the time, and they translate well for any audience – Japan, the US, Germany, anywhere. But what you do miss a little bit, if you only listen to the symphonic works, is the roots of the music; it’s all ultimately based on singing, and among the piano pieces are over a hundred Romances – like Schubert with his lieder, Tchaikovsky’s Russian Romances are like a Rosetta Stone of his musical language.

Even Tchaikovsky’s operas are a more significant part of his musical output than his symphonies: he wrote ten, as opposed to just six symphonies, but they aren’t as famous or appreciated because of cultural and language barriers that make them more difficult to understand. But a lot of his piano music lies in the same area as his vocal music, rather than the symphonic works; one exception is the posthumous sonata Op. 82, which was actually written very early, and contains an almost verbatim sketch of future symphonic scherzo movements.

There’s quite a similarity with Shostakovich, whom I absolutely love: when Shostakovich approached these small forms like the preludes and fugues, he was always trying to build symphonic forms over three pages. There was always this conflict between the means of expression and what he’s trying to say; some global problem which he needs to put into just a few lines. And the same is often true of Tchaikovsky; a conflict of seemingly-innocent small pieces with innocuous titles like 'Impromptu' or 'Dumka', where he expresses a symphonic level of feeling and emotion.

Some people have seen Tchaikovsky’s piano works as not merely containing similar melodic phrases, but even being in some sense test-beds for broader ideas that he would later develop in his symphonies and chamber music. Do you see any hints in these pieces of techniques that reappear in later works?

Oh, yes, of course. He plans the build-ups in the same way. One of the least popular pieces is an early one, Op. 1 No. 2, which Tchaikovsky didn’t even want to include in his selections of pieces published by Jurgenson – it’s about four pages long and even without him saying explicitly what it’s about, it’s obviously Francesca da Rimini. Not in musical material per se, but in terms of the subject matter; nothing needs to be specified, but you can clearly see the lines of Dante coming through. It was a great surprise to me; I was looking for a contemporary source that might provide a reference, but actually you don’t need that in order to understand what it’s all about.

What makes Tchaikovsky unique in the field of Russian music is that he combined this incredible melodic gift with truly German musical organisation. He was also a composer who didn’t compose 'immediately', straight into the full score, so you can see his process at work: first he composes the skeleton for the piano, and then he develops it. (This is true even of the symphonic works – the Sixth Symphony first appeared in a piano version). So he was working a very organised, precise way: absolutely not thinking about the instrumental sounds at this early stage, but committing in black and white to the piano sketches.

This also made it particularly interesting to approach some of the surviving transcriptions, which are included on this collection – the marches, and also The Nutcracker (which is a completely different story). You can see the work in progress; if you go to an art gallery you see the masterpieces, but it’s also interesting to see the sketches that the painter used in preparing the final work, and in this black and white format, stripped of all the gorgeous colours, you notice how Classical it truly is.

As you’ve alluded to, many of these pieces were commissioned by publishers with an eye on the huge amateur market – salon pianists playing for their own enjoyment and requiring works of modest difficulty. Do you think this limited Tchaikovsky in terms of what he could express in composing them?

Reading his letters where he’s corresponding with his publishers, you can see that he tried to stick to what they’d asked for and serve this purpose, but got carried away almost instantly. But realistically, the majority of them can be played by most amateurs. If we look at Chopin, writing his études and giving them to his students – who were from rich families and who were not practising in order to become concert pianists but simply as part of a well-rounded education – he gave them the Op. 1 and Op. 2, which all the piano students struggle with at competitions. It’s more a question of how well they were played; we can’t necessarily say that performers in these contexts were particularly accomplished, but they played it somehow, and many of those pieces can be played on this level.

It’s not merely that the pieces were commissioned to serve this very extensive market of amateur pianists; there’s also the fact that at that point there were no CDs that someone might take home after attending the premiere of The Nutcracker, so those easy arrangements of his pieces were made to substitute for that. For me, it was very fascinating to read about the disaster that happened with The Nutcracker - he didn’t have time to prepare the piano arrangement for Jurgenson to publish, and he asked his friend Taneyev to do the arrangement for him. Unfortunately Taneyev’s approach was to put every single note of the orchestral score into his transcription, and when the first copies were sold customers came back complaining that they couldn’t even get through the first page! Of course Tchaikovsky was furious, as was the publisher, and they had to work together to re-edit Taneyev’s transcription, eliminating 95% of what he’d done. Tchaikovsky rewrote the arrangement to make it easier, and re-published it as a new 'easy edition'!

Although the piano was not his main focus, the works Tchaikovsky wrote for it clearly show his style and in particular his innate gift for melody. Why do you think they have struggled to become well-known, compared to his other works?

I think, frankly, it’s because his musical legacy is such an embarrassment of riches. A few pieces are obviously eternally popular, which is nothing to complain about, but I do think that the problem is simply that there’s so much of his music that the piano repertory fell out of the limelight. Maybe this is a temporary thing, historically speaking; fifty or a hundred years of obscurity is nothing. Maybe in twenty or thirty years from now everyone will be playing nothing but Tchaikovsky on the piano – which wouldn’t be a bad thing!

Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

Available Formats: 10 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC