In 2007, Anna Vinnitskaya won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition at the age of 24 following, in particular, a masterful performance in the finals. Since then, she has been having a brilliant career and now is counted among the greatest living concert pianists showing a serene power in anything she does. With her repertoire ranging from Baroque to the French Impressionists, taking in Romantic and Russian composers along the way, her deeply imaginative and expressive interpretations always leave a lasting impression on her listeners. ResMusica recently met her during a visit to Brussels.
ResMusica : You left Russia at the age of 18 in order to study in Germany. What sort of memories do you have from this time?
Anna Vinnitskaya : First of all, I came to Germany all alone without my family. I left my best friends behind in Russia. So, to be honest with you, I don’t really remember that time fondly. At home, my parents had taken care of everything, including all the everyday concerns like cooking, cleaning and looking after my health. Then, suddenly I found myself on my own in a country where I did not speak a single word of German and where I had neither friends nor acquaintances. I didn’t even know what you could eat for breakfast or how to do the laundry! I think the experience made me stronger, and that I have come farther as a result.
RM : I get the impression that meeting Professor Evgeni Koroliov changed everything. Do you remember your very first lesson with him?
AV : I started with another teacher in Germany, and then I met Mr Koroliov. A friend of mine had studied with him so I wanted to listen to him. No, I cannot say that I was thrilled from the beginning. I came to see him and I asked him if I could audition for him and he agreed. But it was the whole atmosphere that I found in his class… It’s not as if he said anything in particular. No, it was not just about how to become a pianist but it was purely about music, the thing you enjoy, the thing you love deeply. That was what mattered, and I felt it from the first lesson. This is not what I was used to, but it was something very special. I immediately wanted to study with him. Since then, he has become like my father. It has been five years since I studied with him, but I meet with him several times a week and I speak with him regularly. He continues to help me develop, personally as well as professionally, as he is very erudite. He knows a lot, not only about music but also about visual arts, literature and he advises me. At the end of these talks, I feel like I really understand more about life.
RM : How was his way of teaching?
AV : Like I said, it was not so much about the pianistic aspect or the experience that a professor would share. As if he were saying something like “here, I’m going to give you a trick. Here, you have to play this way and there, another way ». No, not all! When I arrived in Koroliov’s class, I had attained a basic level of proficiency. I had already learnt a lot with my teacher in Russia, Sergei Ossipenko. He is really an excellent pianist. My hands had a very good treatment with him and he taught me how to make the instrument sing and how to find a special touch.
The idea was also to feel: “you are a very creative person and you can really experiment a lot. There is not just one single path, you can take different ones. You are someone who can create. Depending on what you desire, you have to create according to your heart and therefore, you can simply receive a lot of things.” I had not realized that such approach existed. I don’t want to generalize but especially in Russia, it can be just about repetition which is hundred percent pianistic, and it is rare to genuinely « create » music.
Evgeni Koroliov wanted you to improve from your individual perspective and to find your own direction, not to give his own view. This has nothing to do with what has frequently been done by some professors with so-called « student »s being puffed up like a balloon. The student plays suddenly very well although he does not have that much talent. Professor Koroliov has never done that. Now that I am also a Professor in the same university, I am trying to follow that example and to pass on his experience.
RM : This season, your recital program reflects one part of your vast repertoire. I noticed some rarely performed pieces such as Brahms opus 76. Why is it so unappreciated in comparison to his other piano solo pieces?
AV : I don’t understand it either. It is not just less loved because otherwise, you have the following opus from 116 to 119. These four opus are brillant. Obviously Brahms evolved over the years. At the end of his life, it is really pure Brahms music. There is no more influence from Schumann. When Brahms was young, his early works were influenced by him and sometimes also by Mendelssohn. On this point, I cannot say whether you can hear it or not. Opus 76 is no less brillant than 116 and 117. I also don’t understand why it is not very often played, but it is really good for me (laughs). I enjoy performing it and if I play it in concert, no promoter can say that we already have it scheduled this season.
RM : You also play this season the amazing Dances of the Dolls from Shostakovich. The pieces are not simply for beginners, and they reveal another facet of him. The music sounds optimistic, full of charm and quite refined, far from his often « dark » image.
AV : As for the Dances of the Dolls, that is quite another story. I found it by chance in my book case where I have tons of scores. I saw Puppentänze which I didn’t know so I played them. I liked them a lot. Of course, they are written for children. I thought it was brillant. Most people are really wondering why I play this. But it is still music. Why do you have to be virtuoso? It’s not necessary. I believe these pieces are of a very high musical level so why not play them? Because it’s too easy? But that is not a valid criterion. In my opinion, they are unknown by 90% of the audience and I am very proud to be able to share them.
These pieces are definitely refined and very humorous. Shostakovich had a good sense of humor, even about himself. What I find very specific in his case, is that he has so many facets. He wrote in many different styles from baroque to jazz and it is still his own language. Sometimes, his humor lies just under the surface in such a way that it cannot immediately be perceived. It really is written in a very clever way.
RM : The Bach Chaconne was also transcribed by Busoni but you chose to perform the Brahms version. Is this particular transcription going to be on your upcoming Brahms CD?
AV : I have played that as well. The other day, I looked at one of my program from 2007. I had played the Chaconne for both hands and these days, I play the one for one hand (laughs). When I was young, I liked it a lot. For Busoni’s time it showed a very modern sort of virtuosity. I find that Brahms’ version is more sincere than Busoni’s. I find it fascinating that he wrote for one single hand like for the violin, where you have to find the notes, whereas on the piano, we have to hold tension since we play with two hands. We have some very good instruments and we do not have to search for anything. Here we have C, F sharp… all the notes are here. For all the other instruments, they have to be found so we pianists have a great advantage. It helps a lot to have this feeling when you play this Brahms version and it sounds better than the virtuosic Busoni piece. That’s my personal opinion as I have played both of them.
Indeed the Bach/Brahms version will be in my new recording. I have recorded a new album in September which I think will be released in February. From Brahms, there are also opus 76, 79 – The Rhapsodies– and opus 116. I also wanted to include 117 and the following but not everything could fit on the CD. It is a shame because I find Brahms fascinating. I lived in Hamburg for a long time and he also lived here. Sometimes I tell myself « look here, Brahms probably walked here « . These dark clouds, this gray atmosphere, these canals and bridges, Brahms saw them too. And then I tell myself « wow, he saw this with his own eyes. »
RM : Your last recording is devoted to Shostakovitch (Awarded Clef ResMusica). With Kremerata Baltica you play the two piano concerti. Playing without any conductor creates a privileged relationship between soloist and musicians. How was it to work with the ensemble? Did Gidon Kremer follow the recording process?
AV : Yes, he was there but not all the time. Gidon gave us invaluable advice regarding balance and tempi. But there was no obligation and he only gave his opinion. It was really exciting. He is for me one of the most genuine and versatile musicians. I played Bach concerti when I first played with Kremerata Baltica. It was first experience with Shostakovitch. Since we got on very well, it was an immediate success. Playing without any conductor was an advantage because I had direct access to them. We all sat together and talked about how to achieve the best balance in a certain passage, or which tempi. I had already played Mozart and Bach without any conductor and I also conducted Shostakovitch from the keyboard. I had taken conducting lessons and I really enjoyed it. I also have to say that Kremerata Baltica, which is such an exceptional ensemble, plays almost always this way. They are used to playing like a chamber music ensemble without being conducted by anyone.
RM : There is a sublime Andante in the 2nd concerto. The version that you recorded is not romanticized as it is often heard.
AV : I don’t know if you have heard how Shostakovitch himself performed it. He never romanticized his work. He was influenced by Viennese classicism rather than by romanticism. Romantic feelings are turned inward rather than outward. I do not like this idea of expressing them in an explicit way. His music is beautiful enough. You do not have to show how beautiful it is: you can hear it! I think that trying to show this beauty is taking a wrong direction but that is just my personal opinion.
RM : You give the impression of blending with the musical language of each composer that you perform. Do you have a particular method and how do approach a work for the first time?
AV : A method? Actually, no I don’t. With the Russian repertoire, I know for instance that I need less time to understand it, it happens almost by instinct. I feel at once how to be convincing. I know how to handle it so that I can convince myself and others through this music. For the other composers, I have to search. I am not saying that I do not understand but a certain period of time has to go by – I need much more time. Russian composers are in my blood, although there are always some differences. However, that does not mean that I like this repertoire more.
The worst way to learn a new piece is to listen to recordings. I never do it. Anyway, generally I don’t listen to recordings. I don’t have any time. Well, you know, with me playing at home and then also with my students, I do not want to hear any more music. I have enough of it and all I want is silence. When I work on a new piece, I’m just going to play it and then I try to find what the composer wanted to do with it. Why did he compose it? Why did he want to say with it? And then, it is my job to convey with my own words what he wanted to say. I am practically a medium.
RM : Which piece could be more challenging for you?
AV : I believe a piece of Mozart, I love Mozart, I love to play it at home! Once you are on stage, everything that you have done at home falls apart because this music is so fragile. If you breathe badly, pfff, it all falls apart like if it was a house of cards. Often, 50% of what you have been doing at home does not work once on stage and that is for me very annoying. Every note is worth gold. As a matter of fact, when you think about it, there are not as many notes as with Prokofiev or Brahms. Here it is not the case so it plays a very important role as regards agogics and all the notes play a major role. I really feel this music and I love it but once I am on stage, sometimes I am not ready to play it.
RM : What is your ideal piano? I have heard you chose a Bösendorfer for your upcoming Brahms CD.
AV : It’s always different. I play mostly Steinways and I have one at home but it is very old and I do love old pianos. My colleague at the university where I work has got an old Erard and somehow it’s like a gift to play it. It has a distinctive tone. I find it very important to have an instrument with personality. Most older instruments have their own personality, like five or ten year old Steinways. Unfortunately, you often find on stage a brand new concert Steinway which has not developed it yet. They are very good but not yet sculpted. There is a good basis without any face. It is such a shame because some time ago, I thought they were better. I really like ivory for concert pianos. Thank God, it’s a very good thing that their keys are not made of it anymore. Still, it is awful to say, thinking of those poor elephants, but ivory keys hold warmth and become hotter while plastic keys are less warm.
So yes, I chose a Bösendorfer piano for my next recording. It was also a coincidence. I know a very good piano maker and I wanted to see the Steinways that he had. They were very good but in his shop, there was a Bösendorfer. I tried it and I liked it very much. So I told him that I would like to have this model. It wasn’t planned. I found that its tone was much more differentiated. Its basses and the low register were so rich. Basses on these pianos are so deep! However, I am not saying that Bösendorfer are better.
RM : Since 2009 you are Professor at the Hamburg Musik Hochschule. What does this teaching mean to you?
AV : First of all, it it about my own development. I know that through my teaching, I almost hear myself from a distance. Also, when I practice, I try to hear myself. The result of working through this whole repertoire that I am studying with my students is that I know lots of pieces not only from listening, but also from this work. It means that I don’t need so much time for the pieces that my students have to develop themselves. It also makes me very happy to communicate with people and to keep on sharing my experience. I think it is very important. I took part in international competitions and I achieved a lot so this is why I can tell my students about it and also advise them.
My students really play very well. The question is what will come next? Times are difficult. In the meantime, they are in the process of developing and I know it. I have a huge responsibility. In other words I am like someone standing alongside the road they are traveling down. It is the most important time of their lives. There is a possibility that you do nothing afterwards. And then how are you going to evolve? You can never know. So what is going to happen in three or four years is a very interesting subject.
RM : So your teaching doesn’t only stick to a basic pianistic experience…
AV : No, it is much more complex. Like I said, this is almost all. First of all, it deals with communication between young people and myself. They not only want me as a teacher but also as a human being who will basically advise them about life. I also find it very important to talk about other forms of Arts because my teachers did that with me. In Germany for instance, many professors just do their job just like any other. I feel that you need some personal extra support and also that you have to teach in a very personal way.
Some students need to be praised. I have to tell them “you are great, wonderful!” And on the contrary to others, I have to correct then and say « No, that’s very bad. You can do better, this isn’t working. » Everyone needs something different. In the beginning, I was teaching everyone the same way and that was a mistake. I started with almost no experience and now after five years, I teach in a complete different way. Psychologically speaking, I’ve learnt a lot about how to deal with young people. And as I said, I see what everyone needs and my course is not the same for everyone. Otherwise, students don’t make any progress.
RM : What happens when you hear a student playing a piece that you’ve been playing for long time in a complete different way?
AV : I didn’t like it. At first, it was awful because I was expecting something else. I was listening and I was always searching for something else. Then, two or three years must have passed and I told myself « wow, that can be played differently. It is convincing and it is just as good. » I am so glad that you can play a piece in such different ways and especially that my very gifted students are hearing a piece in a complete other way. That is just as wonderful.
The main thing is to get the right stylistic. Indeed what’s in the score, like dynamic and tempo, is very important. You are free for everything else and it’s nice when students demonstrate their imagination. Sometimes, they go beyond and the stylistic is not correct so I have to tell them to be careful, the composer didn’t want this, or this is not a piece of Beethoven or Mozart but rather their own arrangement, and then they tell me “ok, maybe that was too much!”
To be able to interpret a piece in different ways is a musicians’ bliss, the fact that any of us can put our personal opinion, personal tastes and also personal ideas into a piece and that by doing so, we can be very creative even though we all have the same score.
RM : Are you interested in other kind of music like jazz or pop music?
AV : Jazz, my father played some jazz… he wanted to teach me but I was very stubborn. I said that I didn’t want to because I was already being given classical music lessons by my mother and I had had enough of my mother… Now, I find it’s a shame because I would love to improvise. You know Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, all the composers were able to do so and now 91, 92 percent cannot do it and neither can I. Maybe when I have more time and when my two children are a little bit older. I think it helps to feel free. I also listen to some jazz but like I said earlier, I mostly prefer silence.
Pop music, no, I don’t listen to it. Not because I do not like it from time to time. Why not on the radio in the car? I actually don’t need it. I can perfectly understand people who love doing that. Many things are really very good in pop. I admire artists like Michael Jackson or Madonna who really did it well. It is 100% about quality, and just like for us in classical music, you either manage to achieve that quality or you don’t. I really have respect for them and for pop music in general. It is very interesting, as is the fact that young people listen to everything that has been created by pop music.
Photo © Gela Megrelidze