Valentina Lisitsa

The Ukrainian pianist on her complete Rachmaninov Concertos

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Valentina LisitsaPianist Valentina Lisitsa has become a YouTube sensation, with more than 30 million visitors watching the videos she posts. But a few years ago it was a different story. Her career seemed to be dwindling, so she started to look for new ways to make her name. Taking the risk of remortgaging her house, she booked the London Symphony Orchestra and Abbey Road Studios to record Rachmaninov's complete concertos. Since then, she's been signed by Decca, and those recordings are out this week on disc for the first time.

It sounds like this project was quite a gamble - did it seem that way to you?
So many people asked me why I was doing this. The first thing they would tell me was that I was crazy and the second thing would be that it was going to work. It was an interesting reaction. Mortgaging the house felt like a little thing to do. It wasn’t a big deal. It felt good to spend the money on a project that I really wanted to do. There are big-name orchestras that when you play with them, they feel like riding in a Rolls Royce. You just sit down and enjoy it. There is no better orchestra for this music than the LSO: it's virtuosic, agile, sporty but also incredibly luscious. There's so much excitement - it's like being in a convertible, with your hair flying back. You get all this fresh air in your face. That's how it felt. It's just the right car for the job.

Why did you want to record Rachmaninov?
For a complete set of Concertos, it could have been Beethoven, say, but I went with Rachmaninov. What upsets me is that people don't know Rachmaninov’s own recordings. It’s strange but I understand why because the quality of the sound is not to contemporary standard. But he’s a composer who happened to be, arguably, one of the best pianists of all time and who recorded his own music.

He did it very differently from the people who played it afterwards. We have this Hollywood style, cut-out-paper caricature of Rachmaninov as a broody Russian, depressed all the time. He was not like that and his playing was not like that. He did have many troubles in his life but many of them didn't translate into his muisc. His playing is elegant, light and fleeting. I wanted to get this spirit into my playing.

Can you give us a quick guide to the Concertos?
They are all so different, written at different times of his life and in different situations. Concerto No. 1 is probably the most open, ingénue kind of piece, extremely enthusiastic and happy. It’s the embodiment of youth. Concerto No. 2 is loved by people very much: there are beautiful melodies but it’s his least personal piece, it’s like a landscape. But then in Concerto No. 3, he gets very personal – he bares his soul. Concerto No. 4 is not an easy piece to enjoy but it's honest. He was in his late middle age and had started thinking about his own mortality.

A gentleman who came to one of my concerts had played in the Cleveland Orchestra when Rachmaninov appeared with them. He wanted to pay him a compliment and told him he thought the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was the best piece of 20th-century music. And Rachmaninov, in his Russian accent, responded: 'This is not 20th-century music, this is my commentary on 20th-century music.'

When did you first get to know the Concertos?
I first heard Concerto No. 2, of course, which I was madly in love with. I was about 12 or so. But after that I was force-fed all this Russian music – Rachamninov, Tchaikovsky – because it was this Soviet system of studying where everything that was Russian was the best. Everybody played Rachmaninov: it was a proletarian kind of Rachmaninov, very patriotic, very Russian, very sentimental. But I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t until I came to the United States, as he did in his life, that I wanted to touch his music. I’ve accompanied a lot of his songs. The songs are like the Rosetta Stone to figure out what he wants to say. I’ve learnt all Rachmaninov’s Romances, his songs and I know them by heart. I could teach any singer to do them. So I played a lot of his music but none of his solo piano music. 

You've become a YouTube phenomenon - how do you think YouTube has changed how people approach classical music?
YouTube is exciting in the way that it’s very democratic way to listen to music. First of all there are so many people in developing countries who would not be able to afford to buy a collection of CDs, YouTube is free so you open doors for people to enjoy classical music without so much commitment. And it’s like an encyclopedia in the same way that Wikipedia became for a young generation. You don’t go to iTunes or in your CD collection, you just go to YouTube to see what’s available. Whether we like it or not there are pirated performances. But there are also videos of the golden age of piano performances –1920s, 1930s and 1940s – which recording labels fail to keep in their catalogues. This is the only place for the majority of people to go and listen to them.

How does it change your relationship with your audience?
It gets back to the blessed or not so blessed time when people could throw rotten tomatoes at performers they didn’t like. We are all conditioned to be a polite audience. We are afraid to clap between movements, we are afraid to cough. We always applaud politely. But there was a time when people could break into cheers of excitement, or throw rotten vegetables at a performer. We are searching for this holy grail of interactivity: well give them the rotten tomatoes! And of course on YouTube people have to make up their own minds. There are no guides. That’s a wonderful thing as people have to decide for themselves.

What will your next project be?
After Rachmaninov comes a little bit of Liszt. It was recorded in two different ways: the most modern way with very sophisticated equipment and also recorded for vinyl LP with this huge machine that took six grown-up men to get into the concert hall. It gives a direct comparison. There are people who swear by vinyl, saying it’s personal and human, there's no fakery, no editing; others say that our modern technology is so good and it beats anything that was done before. Here is the first direct comparison with one set of microphones for two technologies from 80 years apart.

Interview by Rebecca Franks; Photos: Decca/Gilbert François

Valentina Lisitsa's recording of Rachmaninov Piano Concertos Nos 1-4 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is out now on Decca