© Lisa Smirnova
© Lisa Smirnova

Austrian-Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova features in the London Piano Festival at Kings Place this October. We caught up with her for a quick Q&A.

How did you first start playing the piano? Was it love at first sight?

There are no musicians in my family, so it was a coincidence when a friend, who was a music teacher, suggested that my parents send me to piano lessons. I don’t think it was love at first sight – I loved my figure skating and ballet training, and even thought of becoming a volcanologist just in case it wouldn’t work out with dancing!

You were born in Moscow and were accepted into the Conservatory there. Is there an expectation that Russian-born pianists must play Russian repertoire?

Yes, there is. I really did not particularly like that from the very beginning, because I was (and am) personally not very interested in this repertoire, and believe that it is part of real artistry to critically find out what one can do best without anything being imposed by the education system.

How did you come to be based in Austria?

By the time I reached my A-grades I already did not like both the education system and the living situation in Russia, so that I was not afraid to escape, regardless of what it took. When I had an opportunity to go to Germany for a 10-day masterclass I never went back. Professor Karl-Heinz Kämmerling gave me a chance to study with him at the Mozarteum in Salzburg which changed my whole life immediately. It was like a dream, and I believe to this day that it was the best decision I’ve ever made, despite all the obstacles. Even my parents didn’t know about my plans at the time.

In reality, you perform a lot of Baroque and Classical repertoire. What is it that draws you to music of these eras?

It is, above all, the fact that the music of this period is at the same time completely abstract and therefore allows for very different renditions, yet every solution needs to be a masterwork of formal balance, refined style and sophisticated sound. Achieving this is a real intellectual challenge and a source of never-ending inspiration for me!

© Lisa Smirnova
© Lisa Smirnova

In these days of historically informed performances, some people frown upon Bach or Rameau being performed on the piano. What arguments would you use to refute them? Are there advantages to the piano over the harpsichord in Baroque repertoire?

We know that Bach's and Handel's music works extremely well on different instruments. Bach transcribed his own concerti easily from one solo instrument to another, Handel used extracts from his operas in the keyboard suites, and so on… there are numerous examples. So instead of trying to get close to a sound of which we actually don’t know how exactly it was when the music was written, I prefer to work with the advantages of technical progress, i.e. the flexibility of dynamics, articulation, volume and colour that a modern piano offers.

You play a lot of Domenico Scarlatti – but then, he wrote 555 keyboard sonatas! What is it about his music that so appeals to you?

It is the fact that his music has its very individual style – it is not similar to anyone else’s, and he indeed never repeats himself. It is unbelievable how many creative, sophisticated and modern ideas this man had, all within one genre on one instrument!

You’ve stated that Mozart is your favourite composer. Mozart’s music is so perfectly formed – that must bring its own challenges in performance?

Very much so – nothing more difficult than that! To play Mozart very well is the work of a lifetime. For me the key is to understand and be able to feel and follow the psychology of his language, of what he is telling us in the piece. It is as if the wonderful narrator tells us an even more wonderful story… not to mention the perfect technique you need to have at your disposal. And brilliant technique means perfect control of the sound, and not fast and loud playing, as it is frequently taught and suggested.

You are taking part in the London Piano Festival’s Two Piano Marathon, playing Shostakovich and Mozart with Ilya Itin.

Do you approach two piano repertoire any differently to solo recitals? How easy is it to build up a rapport with a fellow pianist? Do you vary who plays Part 1 and Part 2, or does one partner instinctively prefer to always take the upper/lower line?

The biggest challenge to play on two pianos with a great colleague is that he or she is not a permanent partner with whom one would work for years to get the touch and sound to fit together…  So the focus is on agreeing on the interpretation of the piece. We will, of course vary, and I take the upper line in Mozart, and Ilya in Shostakovich.

Click here to find out more about October's London Piano Festival.


Article sponsored by the London Piano Festival