Piano Street Magazine

Valentina Lisitsa on Searching for the Rachmaninoff Affinity

March 24th, 2016 in Articles by | 10 comments

When Valentina Lisitsa came to Stockholm to play Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, it was a welcome fact not only for all her fans but also for anybody well aware of the enormous challenge this concerto means for any performer. In 2013 Lisitsa released her Complete Rachmaninoff Concertos on Decca and therefor this was a rare chance for Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell not to talk to her about YouTube but… Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Patrick Jovell: Tell me about your relationship to Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa: Well, basically I think Rachmaninoff had the same problem I had. Stories tell that he learned pieces very quickly and he would fake his practice and was easily procrastinating tasks and would rather go and skate with his friends than indulge in hard work. With me, it was the same when young as I was very advanced and what took other people three months to learn I did in three days. It was easy for me to be on top of the class, so between exams and exams, I could basically do nothing. My family didn’t have a clue thinking I was practicing while reading books for example.

Valentina Lisitsa and Patrick Jovell in front of a portrait of Sergey Rachmaninoff at the Stockholm Concert House.

Valentina Lisitsa and Patrick Jovell in front of a portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

PJ: You were both emigrants from the East, Russia and the Soviet Union.
VL: Yes, the same situation with Rachmaninoff and me happened when we emigrated to the West – strange to talk about him like this – but he came from a very protected life in Russia with a good position and didn’t have to work really hard and could focus on just to create.
When he comes to the West, he realizes he has to work and consequently play concerts. So he came to the West without having much repertoire. The same problem as with me. All my education was competition driven and then you cover your base with this kind of competition repertoire and stay with that because succumbing to a competition life other repertoire is not needed. I was coming from a shelter situation where you go from competition to competition. So not until I got real management I found myself working as a kind of ambulance as you get your breaks playing concerts for people who have cancelled on short notice. This is very stressful because you can never say I never played this or that piece. You can never risk they won’t call again. So step by step I built a repertoire of concertos which now has grown to a large number, however not meaning I always play them.

PJ: Your Rachmaninoff Complete Concertos (incl. the Paganini Rhapsody) is a tremendous project which makes one think in terms of a project reflecting a lifetime. How many of the concertos did you play since an early age?

VL: Only one, the second concerto was a part of my competition repertoire, a work I literally can pull out of my pocket and play at any time and now Rach 3 is going the same way as I have played it so many times.

PJ: We have all these stories about pianists working a whole life to prepare this enormous work. How was your relationship to the third?

VL: I was answering this young boy who told me that he was practicing Rach 3 and found it so difficult as it made him so emotional. This makes me think of a picture/caricature of Liszt sitting playing at the piano but his head is going all the way up over the clouds or another story about the great singer Chaliapin, who apart from being a fantastic singer also was a brilliant actor who was able to convince anyone about anything. At the same time, he could split his person and go privately nasty. We are here talking about a double personality. One person who suffers all emotions and one who is the cool observer. That is what this piece does to you. You become two persons – it’s not bi-polar though (laughs).

PJ: So you mean that the difference between the second and third is huge?

VL: The second is the most perfect in terms of composition. Not too long and not too short, popular melodies and also a bit boring. As a performer, you cannot risk breaking out from this construction. It is dangerous to get too over-sentimental or overly fast. The third is like life. You never know where it takes you, it always comes differently no matter what you plan. Different orchestras, different conductors and so on. Every time you relive the piece in that sense.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no 3, introduction:

PJ: The famous story about Gustav Mahler conducting the third with Rachmaninoff as soloist in New York in 1909 tells about how great respect Mahler had for this concerto forcing the orchestra to lengthy and rigorous rehearsals on the orchestral parts. What can we learn from this?

VL: Well, this concerto is much more give and take. More interactive, which is great as you feed on what the orchestra does. For instance, take the last quiet moment – reminiscent of the first movement – and everything depends on what the woodwind does, you cannot change it, it depends on what they give you.

PJ: You are a very dynamic performer and you have done a tremendous journey through the Rachmaninoff concerto cycle including the Rhapsody. The first concerto is a youth work, the second a masterpiece of compositional balance. Yuja Wang has mentioned that she sees an improvisational base in the material in the third concerto. Which was your base for approaching this monumental work?

VL: The problem is when people are talking about Rachmaninoff that we actually talk so much about style, our traditions tell us how Bach is supposed to sound or how Beethoven and Mozart are supposed to sound. We feel how they should sound even though we have never heard them. With Rachmaninoff we have a unique case; we have a great composer who was arguably one of the greatest pianists, playing with top orchestras, he was a good conductor working on a level where he easily could communicate what he wanted. So let’s be Sherlock Holmes and just assume that he was in a position where he could add what he wanted or deduct what he didn’t want. With this in mind, his own recordings are very much a proof of what he wanted. He changed things often, substituted dynamics, chords, phrase endings and so on.

PJ: What about the cuts done in performances which were evidently done in the third concerto’s youth?

VL: It has to do with the work length. Of course we have the lengthy Brahms’ B-flat major concerto and the pressure to fit a certain size for recording. Rachmaninoff said that when they for this reason made cuts in his second symphony it was like cutting his body and flesh, yet everybody was doing it. His music was often felt like being too long.

PJ: Can we interpret this as disposition of too much emotion or what?

VL: Perhaps, people were not ready at that point to accept it. Nowadays when we live in a higher tempo, we are used not to modify or doing cuts.

PJ: Stephen Hough once wrote about musical declamation and how to achieve a climax in romantic music through doing the opposite.

VL: We should listen to Rachmaninoff’s playing and we will see his formula as easy as 1-2-3, very specific way of phrasing, specific way of building structure connecting and achieving climax on certain notes. We find everything in his recordings. It happens often when I play with great maestros and I ask them to start the first movement in Rachmaninoff’s tempo, that I get the reaction ¨Oh no, he plays it too fast¨. It is Alla breve and that is what Rachmaninoff does. Why do we discount what the composer wanted and played himself? This gives a totally different direction to the entire piece.

Lisitsa rehearsing Rachmaninoff Concerto no 3 in Budapest

PJ: Tell me of your affinity and psychological relation to the work. We have a notion that when Rachmaninoff is played by pianists from the Russian tradition, there is a certain specific understanding and transmission of cultural and emotional contents taking place, like priests transforming the secrets of the mighty tradition?

VL: It has much more to do with the musical language I think. He borrows his musical language from orthodox church music, very Byzantine. Constructions derived from the oriental branch of Eastern Christianity. Long wavy phrases reflecting the slavic language. We write letters differently, our style of language is different. People in Russia make fun over the German language with long phrases and English is very straight and direct which clearly tells Who did What. In Russian it is not so clear. The Russian language tends to endings which close, one after another. So in this sense, it has nothing to do with emotions but language. The emotional side comes from people’s notion about Rachmaninoff. In the US, for example, he was treated as a Hollywood composer, he never wrote for Hollywood but film composers were asked to write in the style of Rachmaninoff. He was stigmatized for being the grand composer writing popular music. With that came also a notion in performance. The Hollywood idea of dramatize Russian literature like War and Peace or Doctor Zhivago epic saga theme emphasising the Russians to be sad and sentimental. This is not genuine. In that same way, the playing style of Rachmaninoff became seen as gloomy, sad and sentimental – the only thing missing would be a fur hat with a Russian star (laughs). A perfect caricature of the slavic soul.

I remember in music school and music history class our teacher played three versions of the G-minor Prelude for us asking us to guess who played which version and the pianists were Rubinstein, Richter, and Rachmaninoff. We were young and thought Richter was the pianist crashing and banging on the piano, Rubinstein is the more refined with a sort of feminine approach, Rachmaninoff with his big hands with the absolutely biggest sound. We were very surprised to realize that it was Rubinstein was playing in the American style and banging like crazy – which we thought was Rachmaninoff – while Rachmaninoff’s playing was the least interesting to us, too subdue and too light, we thought Rachmaninoff was Rubinstein.

Hear Rachmaninoff play:
Travel in Time and Meet Sergei Rachmaninoff

PJ: So you mean that the actual idea about Rachmaninoff is a construction?

VL: When young people ask me how to listen to Rachmaninoff then we first have to go through this mental barrier, sit down and actually listen to his playing and sound. We have to readjust to the style that is coming out. First it seems dry, light weight and it’s not emotional. That is a shock to people right? People tell me that he plays the third too fast, but in comparison to what? When people splash their hearts out in the piano and displaying their intescticles out through the piano like having a constant session going on with your psychiatrist over and over again. Like watching the movie Shine over and over again. But Rachmaninoff belonged to the Russian nobility shared a lot in common with the British; men do not cry, you don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, everything is inside – so his music is a tension of what’s inside. When you understand this, you start looking at him totally differently.
We can hear Martha Argerich play Rach 3 so wonderfully and so exciting and then there is Rachmaninoff himself who doesn’t project the same emotions, it even sounds irritated like he is upset. It’s angry and everything is inside. But when he smiles at you just slightly you feel so happy, like he made your day.

PJ: Many young pianists competing in competitions play the third concerto. Do you think there is a different sound concept these days? Being a repertoire work it no longer seems so hard to play with a sort of ease and not with an aim to create these enormous monumental type interpretations (Horowitz/Ormandy & Ashkenazy/Fistoulari for example). Is it good that the concerto has become so popular and that so many pianists are playing Rach 3 these days?

VL: Well, it’s not good because it is not played correctly, not in Rachmaninoff style. People are doing it like they are doing Tchaikovsky or Chopin… Rachmaninoff style is not only the tempi. Tempo is the first thing we can tell, what is truly different about him is how he phrases. We have clear directions how to play when we learn Bach or Chopin. The most telling recording of how he phrases is not his recording of the third but rather the second movement of the first concerto. I give it as a task to people who ask me how to do it; go and try to play with him. And there is where style happens. His style is totally different from what we think of Russian music and Russian performance, what we despise in Russian playing, that everything is late. I will tell you why. Western pianists are trained to play chamber music with strings, in Russia everything was going from singing and singers with breathing is notorious for being late. There Ashkenazy’s style is painfully Russian as it adopts to this – taking big breaths and then letting everything go with great emotion, a vocal style. When we listen to Rachmaninoff he is doing the opposite thing, his downbeat comes before the beat when we measure it. We pianists have limited tools at our disposal, we have a percussion instrument so we play with weight and gravity but we really play it with our time machine, so we stretch sometimes. And when we hear Rachmaninoff in this example, he stretches his downbeat so it gets outside the sonic construction. Actually, if we listen to singers in popular music from Russia and the West from the 1910s and 20s they are doing the same way. It is totally different from the operatic approach. We were growing up and there was of course Horowitz and everybody was crazy about him and those who could copy him and Horowitz was painfully copying Rachmaninoff in the third concerto. Phrases with accents, very active starting points before the beat. In Horowitz case, it also coincided with accents, and everybody was copying this. The misconception became rule just like what we said about tempo which is not fast but Alla breve.

PJ: What about the Russian concept of “Intonatsiia”, whereas you use more time when you need to go far on the keyboard?

VL: This is the concept of opera which works wonderfully in Mozart but not in Rachmaninoff, you think of an interval of a stretch, the big interval takes you more time in duration. Good opera singers though don’t need longer time to reach the right notes in all registers.

PJ: Were you aware of these facts when you started working on the Rachmaninoff concertos project?

VL: No, it was natural for me to study the way he was playing as opposed to referring to which teachers I learned from. I would put on headphones and play along with him. I think our perception of timing is very different from what it is in reality. Only when you play simultaneously easy melodies, you can discover where you are early or late and experience what he does. I studied for a long time not with an aim to say I copied Rachmaninoff because that is impossible, but more like we are like lenses in cameras. Different lenses and different cameras and the same object will always look different.

PJ: How many times have you performed the third concerto?

VL: I didn’t count but maybe 25-30 times.

PJ: What has happened during this journey?

VL: In the beginning you are so much involved, busy, it is such an immense piece of music… you are in the thick of the battle. You go up in ranks in the army so to speak, you star as an infantryman you are fighting in drenches, you get shot, you don’t know if you are going to survive, and if you survive to the end, it is already a victory. Then you can end up leading a small group of people of a batallion and if you make it to generals rank, you can watch the battle from a distance and send an army of 200 people if needed.

PJ: Ever since the rise of the movie Shine in 1996 and the idea about Rach 3 being the Mount Everest for pianists, the idea has also been that this climb shall be done by big strong male performers preferably Russian and with big hands. With recordings of you and Yuja Wang and many other virtuoso female performers, this idea seems extremely old fashioned.

VL: I thought maybe that the general opinion about Brahms’ concertos and particularly the B-flat was even more male in that sense… Playing piano is easy so let’s put it this way; we want our audience to believe that it’s very difficult. Musicians using their lips and embouchure cannot practice more than two hours in order to function, also, string players have to be very careful about natural position and so on in order not to make music making painful. We pianists can just sit down like in an armchair and play with gravity we have a little help with our hands, mechanical rebound from the instrument so basically very easy to play regardless of gender. The problem is on the perception side and what people want to hear. It also has to do with cultural things, we can historically see a difference in audience. All those crazy women who listened to Liszt and at that same time Clara Schumann was consertizing and yet people recommended her not to play great works like the Appassionata, but the audience was female. The problem with gender happens in studies when little boys and girls start playing an instrument and it was expected that boys will be boys and girls will be girls and they all play all these exciting pieces and girls will be nice and womanly. Gender roles in classical education like in Soviet music schools. When there was a boy that played in a feminine way, this boy was usually promoted because he was “musical” but if a girl played in a masculine way – like I did playing virtuoso pieces – I was labeled unmusical. Good technique but unmusical. So I was crossing my gender. Now as an adult, I don’t get opinions like that anymore but in school and at competitions. Because there are expectations. I even had arguments with my teacher about how I should portray disastrous music or something terrible by having a beautiful sound. I am still undecided about that.

PJ: Thank you for enlightening us about your thoughts and work. We hope to see you soon again in Stockholm!

Valentina Lisitsa – Live at the Royal Albert Hall


  • Regarding this question: “Is it good that the concerto has become so popular and that so many pianists are playing Rach 3 these days?”

    I would say it is inevitable because the music is so great. Ever since it was composed, this has represented a pinnacle in the Romantic piano literature. Unfortunately, many young pianists believe that playing this piece is the surest way to win a competition, and that is how they play it … louder and faster, and still louder and faster, until all the music is massacred.

    About the answer given to the above question: “Well, it’s not good because it is not played correctly, not in Rachmaninoff style.”

    When I read “not played correctly”, I stopped reading the rest of the interview. Playing “correctly” is not what making music is all about, IMHO. And most composers are known for being very open to other interpretations than their own. Why try to produce a copy of what someone else has already performed or recorded — even if it is the composer’s own interpretation? I think Rachmaninoff would be very pleased that so many people are playing his music, even if he did it differently. We know that he was quite pleased with Horowitz’ interpretation, for example. Otherwise, we could just put his recording in a museum, and that is that — nobody else would need to play it. Wouldn’t that be quite sad?

    I suggest listening to Alexis Weissenberg playing this with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa to hear how much music there is in that work:

  • Mary says:

    This notion of played properly used to be so important to me. But at some point it became important to play the music the way I felt it. I imagine the Master would be more upset with my lack of diligence than my toying with tempo.
    I appreciate her comments about Clara Schumann. I recently read some excerpts from her diary and there was one where she complained that Liszt’s sonata in b minor was nothing but noise but that since it was dedicated to Robert she would have to compliment Liszt. Brahms play the b minor for her. What was it like to walk with the giants. I would have been happy to be a page turner but then Clara did not allow such a thing at a performance.

  • Jack Morris says:

    I have many recordings of Rachmaninoff #3 by different artists including Valentina Lisitsa. Comparing with the piano score, everyone of these recordings, except for three performers, play the ossia (alternate) cadenza of the first movement. The three that play the original are Byron Janis (Antol Dorati, London Symphony Orchestra), Alexis Weissenberg (Georges Pretre, Chicago Symphony) and Earl Wild (Jascha Horenstein, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). Also in the comment above posted by Robert Hairgrove, Weissenberg (Ozawa, BSO) again plays the original cadenza.

    I am curious as to why this is so. I really think the original cadenza sounds best and fits better into the framework of the first movement. (If I could play this work, I would certainly use the original cadenza.) That would be the question I would ask Ms. Lisitsa: Why do most pianists choose to play the ossia?

    OBTW I forgot to mention that Rachmaninoff plays the original cadenza in his recordings of this concerto.

  • douglas says:

    Thanks for posting this extensive interview on still one the talked about/pondered/performed concertos. I’m lucky enough to have the hands @ 6’6″ to grasp some of the Maestro Rach’s technique, but what a leap into the impossible to figure out the mysteries of this superman’s prodigy/repertoire/compositional/emotional depth. Thanks and regards Douglas Gunderson

  • Tony Glew says:

    Lots of truth in what you say, but I like someone with opinions like Valentina. To say Rach is playing it “right” is great, it must be! To stop reading her article then is wrong. Misses so many points I don’t know where to start! She is a great communicator no question, as the million people who have listened to her playing today will testify. I don’t like it all but I learn something every time I listen, and especially from her comments.

  • alexander amos says:

    I am surprised that she does not know that the Tempi of R’s recordings were dictated by the recording capabilities of the day. Similarly he had to cut R3 for the same reason – speeding up only could go so far!

  • Maybe we can learn the most about Rachmaninoff’s style of music-making not by listening to his own recordings of his compositions, but to his recordings of works by other composers.

    For example, when he plays fortissimo in the reprise of Chopin’s “Funeral March” (3rd movement of the 2nd Sonata in B-flat minor) where Chopin marks it piano, he is obviously doing something quite original which goes against Chopin’s express intentions.

    And listen to the introduction of the 2nd movement of the Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor by Grieg, which he recorded with Fritz Kreisler. His rubato is very special, and I don’t think anyone else has ever played it quite that way because he practically changes the rhythm in some cases. It is obvious to me that Rachmaninoff would be equally tolerant of interpretations of his music which deviate to a similar degree from his own, as he must have assumed that it was OK for him to bend the rhythms in Grieg and the dynamics in Chopin as he did.

    As far as tempo is concerned, we should take to heart what Gustav Mahler had to say about metronome markings (a composer and conductor who performed this concerto with Rachmaninoff as soloist, by the way):

    “All the most important things — the tempo, the total conception and structuring of a work — are almost impossible to pin down. For here we are concerned with something living and flowing that can never be the same even twice in succession. That is why metronome markings are inadequate and almost worthless; for unless the tempo is vulgarly ground out in barrel-organ style, the tempo will already have changed by the end of the second bar. (…) Whether the overall tempo is a degree faster or slower often depends on the mood of the conductor (…) What matters is that the whole should be alive, and, within the bounds of this freedom, be built up with irrevocable inevitability.” (from “Recollections of Gustav Mahler” by Natalie Bauer-Lechner).

    Isn’t it obvious that a copy of the original will never be as good as the original itself, and that copies are usually quite lacking in what Mahler considered the most important quality: “the whole should be alive”?

    Playing along with recordings during practice sessions in order to “assimilate” the style will kill any innate originality we might have and will never replace an expression which stems from an honest emotional reaction to the music. And as Mahler says, the same work performed on two different occasions can sound completely different. With recordings of Rachmaninoff, each one is frozen in time and with the exception of very few works which he recorded more than once, possibly not exactly the way he had intended (or imagined) them to be performed.

  • @Jack Morris:
    I’m not 100% certain, but when I heard Alexis Weissenberg play this concerto live with the Baltimore Symphony during my student years there, I think he played the ossia (longer) cadenza. It was in the early 1970’s, so it is hard to remember exactly.

    Also, in addition to your list of artists who played the ossia cadenza, Van Cliburn did it when he returned from Russia with the 1st prize in the Tchaikovsky competition. That performance (live from Carnegie Hall) is perhaps my favorite of all recordings of this piece.

  • @Jack Morris:
    Sorry, I didn’t read your original comment closely enough … you wrote that all but three played the ossia, not the original!

    Of course, Horowitz always played the original cadenza. I think that Jorge Bolet would perform both at different times, depending on what mood he was in.

    And in my comment about Alexis Weissenberg playing the ossia, it might have been Vladimir Ashkenazy doing it whom I heard perform the piece in Houston with André Previn in the late 1960’s. I still have the autographed concert program by Ashkenazy; he was still signing his name in cyrillic letters at the time.

    Ah, these memories… :)

  • ....................... says:

    The piano concerto #3 of Rachmaninoff is one of the pieces most difficult in the world.

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