An Interview with Lisa Smirnova
Revoice! were delighted to interview Austro-Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova, whom we asked about life as a concert pianist, historical performance, and playing Bach on the piano...
Could you describe your relationship to what you understand by 'historical performance'?
My idea of historical performance is not to attempt to reproduce a sound, when we cannot know exactly how it might have been. My approach is to gain and use as much knowledge as I can to understand notation, articulation, phrasing, and ornamentation, among others. Uniting all the aspects into a beautiful performance requires taste. Very good taste is usually acquired, and as such it is a result of long and profound occupation with this music. Listening critically to great performers, singers, conductors, works by composers of similar time periods but different genres, what does and does not work on period instruments... All this is a truly wonderful and inspiring process that never ends.
As a pianist who plays a broad range of repertories, what is it about baroque music that particularly captures your imagination, and do you think that it is fair to use the blanket term 'baroque' and make such a generalisation about a huge range of different music?
With regards to terms and generalizations, the problem is not the term ‘baroque’ but its understanding - using one term for a huge range of music, art, or anything else requires us to study more carefully what is hidden behind this term, instead of taking it too lightly. Baroque music is extremely abstract to comprehend in our time (we cannot know if it was also considered that way at the time). This is exactly what makes it a truly intellectual and musical challenge for me - one could play a Bach Fugue in 5 different tempi (and thus characters) and all of them would work! Absolutely incomparable with having to follow the exact descriptions of musical pictures and moods used by romantic composers for example - that rather bores me…
Let's talk about J. S. Bach. What is it about Bach that allows him to escape the 'baroque bubble' as it were? All pianists play Bach, but not all play Telemann, for example. Why is this, in your opinion, and who should we be listening to playing Bach today, in your opinion?
What makes Bach stand out is the variety within his style - he never repeats himself. None of the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier sound the same, while for example suites by Buxtehude appear, at least on first sight, more similar to each other - that makes Bach’s music perhaps more exciting for performers. And secondly, Bach’s music works extremely well on nearly any instrument, including a modern one - so musicians do not feel limited by lack of experience with period instruments, etc. I would never impose on anyone whom they should listen to… There are always discoveries to be made. I personally listen to the Bach recordings of András Schiff and Glenn Gould.
Do you play any historical keyboard instruments, and if so, how do they inform your performance of baroque music on a 'modern' piano? If not, would you like to?
I don’t perform on historical keyboard instruments because I feel that the technique required to play them on a high level is so different from what I do on the modern piano that practicing both would affect my playing in a negative way. When I was a young student at the Mozarteum, I did not see this problem and wanted to take cembalo lessons with Kenneth Gilbert. At first he accepted me, but soon after he told me that an accomplished pianist, like I already was, should not distract herself. I was very surprised, but it was the first alarm bell showing me that it isn’t easy to do everything at the same time... Nonetheless, when I have an opportunity I always try these instruments at museums or private collections because it helps me to understand the range of facilities (or shortcomings) the composers had when they wrote and performed the works I play.
Is it lonely being a concert pianist? How do you motivate yourself to practice and work without the interaction and friendly dynamic of a chamber group, for example?
For me, it is not lonely because I don’t like to interact with other people all the time; it would in a way disturb my concentration. Nothing motivates me more than the music I work on. Definitely, interaction and friendly dynamics are fun, but I never wanted to accept the difficulties that come with this, e.g., rarely having ALL members of a chamber group on an equally high level and therefore having to compromise the final result… The soloist has no excuse to compromise in front of Mozart and that feels just right.
What is your favourite place to perform?
I like halls that are not too small (because they allow a certain distance from the public), with good acoustics and a Steinway that is not too aggressive and has singing qualities. The Concertgebouw Amsterdam is an example - so it’s not by accident that my only live recording was made there.
What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you in a concert?
The worst thing for me is a memory blackout… Fortunately it has not happened very often, but of course it has, and can occur anytime. To use the score like many colleagues do is not an option for me, so I work on my memory very diligently.
What one piece of advice would you give to young pianists today?
I could not even think to give advice on artistic qualities as that is life long learning for anyone, myself included. But the young pianists today must realize as early as possible that aside from their talent and skills, only a strong awareness of marketing and PR will enable them to truly make a living. I’ve seen too many disappointments result because this was not explained to young, talented musicians.
Do you think the classical music world has a problem of accessibility?
In my opinion, accessibility first became a topic when the big recording companies tried to maximize the profit on classical music to the level of the profit common for selling refrigerators. Logically, they tried to achieve this goal by selling a less sophisticated "product" (I don’t feel great to be called a product, by the way) to a wider audience. I am personally not certain this will work in the long run, classical music simply can not be an industrialized product for the masses. It costs too much artistic talent, time, work, and devotion to exercise it on the level appropriate to the ideas and spiritual power of great composers.
Finally could you tell us a little about your concert on October 7 2017 at the London Piano Festival?
I am very excited about my recital in October! I very much like the idea of the festival curators, Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen, to present different pianists with their favourite works. First it will share the different qualities that soloists can have at their best - the opposite to the common, much less interesting mainstream events. Furthermore the venue at Kings Place seems to have wonderful acoustic qualities. And last, but not least, I am playing some of the highlights of my entire repertoire: I feel very close to Mozart’s music and personality, and the ECM recording of the 8 Handel Suites was a big success in my career.