Guest interview by Michael Johnson
The Russian pianist Irina Lankova, based in Europe for the past 25 years, has kept her career moving despite the lockdowns and confinements of the covid pandemic. She performs at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in May 2022, and has other engagements to the Salle Cortot in Paris, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, “and many concerts in between”, as she said in our interview.
Her new album Elégie, a “very personal selection” of her favourite emotional pieces by Rachmaninov, Schubert and Bach, has been critically acclaimed in Europe where she has built her career as a soloist. Her playing is notable for her erudite talks in French, English or Russian before recitals, and her expressive interpretations. It is not unusual, she says, to leave members of the audience in tears. “I also cry, at least internally, when I play,” she says.
She has issued six other albums featuring Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Liszt, Schubert, Chopin and Bach.
In this YouTube clip she performs one of the selections from the album recorded during her recital at the Salle Gaveau, Paris
She reads voraciously and draws on the Russian masters – Dostoevsy, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Akhmatova and others “to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters”.
Her new album and her internet clips are illustrated with the work of the late photographer Peter Lindberg, who sought her out after absorbing the “strength and fragility” of her playing. She writes in her liner notes that “with all his kindness he was able to capture this duality and something more, invisible.”
Now raising a family while practicing long hours on her Steinway B, she balances her Russian origins with her European life, still playing with much of her Russian school training in evidence.
Ms. Lankova granted this telephone interview (below) from her home in Belgium and mine in Bordeaux covering her musical origins, what matters most to her continued development as a musician, and where she is headed next.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
You come from an unusual family of mechanical engineers? Are your parents music-lovers?
My parents were not musicians, but they were what we call intelligentsia, people who read, listen and think. There was a piano at home, so it was the most natural thing that I started to go to a music school at the age of 7.
When did the piano first become important to you?
Almost immediately after I started. I was very shy, introverted, bored and sensitive, so music became all at once a friend, a shelter, a source of intellectual challenge and beauty.
Were you attracted to one of the big-name Russian pianists – Gilels, Richter Yudina, Kissin, Tatiana Nikolaeva, Lev Naumov? Did you or do you listen to their recordings? Do they influence you?
Sure, all of the above, but mostly Horowitz, Lipatti, Gould, Rubenstein, Rachmaninov and later Grigory Sokolov. Their recordings forged my musical taste, made the reference point for what is my commitment to music, the quality of work, the depth of the interpretations, and the attitude towards the performance – respect for the score, becoming a musician at the service of Music and not the opposite.
When were you first recognized as an exceptional talent?
Around 10 or 11 years old, I guess I was playing Liszt’s paraphrases and I wasn’t realizing that I was playing something difficult, so at some point my parents were told that I should consider this professional orientation. At the same time, I was also doing exceptionally well at school, so my parents were not inclined to let me choose music unless I entered the best college. At age of 13, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. This persisted until the day I pushed the door open to the Gnessin Musical College and from that moment there was no second option for me, that’s where I wanted to belong.
How many years did you study at the Gnessin Musical College? Was it very demanding? A wonderful experience? Or was it hell on earth?
I studied at Gnessin from the age of 14 to 18. My four years there were absolutely wonderful. I studied with Irina Temchenko, who was wonderful to me, and who taught me so much. I’m still in touch with her on a regular basis. And I also was taking occasional lessons with other great Moscow professors which broadened my outlook. These included Olga Tchernjak, Lev Naoumov, Vladimir Tropp.
How did the move to Belgium at age 19 affect your playing? Was Russian training removed and suppressed from your musicality?
No, not at all, maybe just the opposite. In Brussels I studied at the Royal Conservatory with Russian professor Evgeny Mogilevsky (himself a pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus), so I totally continued with the Russian school. I also worked with Vladimir Viardo and Vladimir Ashkenazy. I was exposed to other influences by living in Europe and going to concerts. For example, Early Music that I loved ever since. But my taste for a specific piano sound was already formed by Russian teachers.
How would you describe the “Russian school”? Do you feel it in your bones? Is it more aggressive and expressive? Or is this a meaningless question?
I think it is real. The secret of Russian pianism is probably in the singing and depth of sound, in the rich scale of colours and nuances, and a special expressiveness. We really look for a large scale of colours, from pianissimo to fortissimo. Not being afraid of expressiveness. We avoid making it overly sugary.
In your stagecraft, you demonstrate an attractive grace, smooth movements of arms and hands, controlled emotions. Is this your natural demeanour or have you been trained for this image?
The movements come from the desire of a particular sound that I want to achieve: the singing sound, full and deep, without harshness, long melodic lines. So, whatever my arms and hands are doing in order to achieve that doesn’t matter to me.
Some pianists fill concert halls with their non-musical trickery – stunning gowns, exaggerated grimaces, bouncing on the piano bench… How have you resisted these temptations?
I need to be myself when I perform. I dress in the same style on stage and off stage — simple, classy and elegant. This means jeans and jackets off stage, long dresses and flared trousers on stage. I feel good in that way and I don’t need to eroticize my looks. And second, and the most important, I think classical music is not about the looks. It’s above all a spiritual and intellectual experience. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov aim to elevate the human being. When I perform, I’m very humble in front of these composers and the public. I’m not flirting with public, neither I try to impress. Instead I’m putting all my heart and soul into the performance, and I want to share the emotion.
Your playing in your new album “Elégie” creates moods by making the piano “work” for you. The listener feels your floating resonances, your sensitive pedalling, your tone, breathes with your pauses and silences.
I am not aware of that but if you hear it that way I am touched. Elégie is very personal selection of pieces that I love. That’s what I hope you sense while listening. Two thirds of that album is Rachmaninov, my favourite composer. I love his expressivity, the gravity, the drama, the spirit, the sincerity, the richness, the intelligence, the melodies, the harmonies, the unpredictability, the humour, the sadness — everything!
Evolution of your repertoire today will take you where – towards Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Contemporary?
Through the years, it seems that I have gone backward from Rachmaninov and Scriabin, to Chopin, then Schubert, then Bach. Today, I’m kind of turning back to Scriabin and Chopin in my next season’s program and CD. And I also want to perform Mozart concertos. If I feel the emotion, I will play it.
You are an avid reader of books. Who are your favourite Russian writers. How do you bring their poetry, philosophy or prose into your playing?
Totally, I read all the time in Russian, French and English. Right now I’m finishing the new book of my favourite Russian author Ludmila Ulitzkaya. Of course, I have read most of classics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Akhmatova. I think it’s important to read Russian literature to understand Russian music, to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov in order to feel the depth of Rachmaninov’s music. I also read a lot in French and English. For me, it’s important to go from contemporary writers to the classics and back.
You have written transcriptions and cadenzas. Do you foresee more ambitious composing objectives ?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not a composer. I’m very happy with my role as an interpreter. It’s an important role in music. We are sort of guardians of what the human race has been doing best — classical music.
You are not the same musician you were 30 years ago. As you reach maturity, how has your musical approach changed? Are you getting better and better?
I hope better and better. You develop as an individual and a human being as well as a musician, and your understanding of life and music become deeper and you have more to say in music when you are 40 than when you were 20, providing you continued to read, learn, play and grow.
How much practice do you need daily to maintain your technique? Do you spend all day at the keyboard?
No, no. If I did, my playing would be very boring. Four hours is ideal for me, but in real life is doesn’t work like that. Sometimes it’s one hour one day versus eight hours the next. The routine is very flexible. I practice on a Steinway B. It’s my friend. We know each other. I can rely on it. It responds to what I want to do.
How reliable is your musical memory? Is it changing as you become more mature? What is your technique for remembering? Do you visualize the score?
I think it’s not the memory that needs to be reliable, but the confidence. Few years ago, I had a very difficult period in my life that damaged my confidence and I had a blackout on stage. It was an important moment for me. It was very painful. After that experience, for a few years I was not able to play by heart. Even in recitals I played with the score before me. It took me a lot of effort, determination and help from various people to get the confidence back and to trust my memory again. Today, I play by heart again, I feel free and love it. But it’s not something I take for granted.
Where did the idea of delivering short music lectures at your recitals come from? Was it your personal concept or did a teacher guide you?
I started intuitively long ago with very short introductions to the pieces, with an idea to provide some key points. And gradually I felt more and more comfortable in talking on stage and I found it helped me to relax and to establish a connection with the public. And the feedback was very good. I made some videos that I called Piano Unveiled and before I realized it, this became my signature.
What has been the impact of the Covid pandemic on your art and your career?
Despite the negative side of cancellations and change of plans, there was a positive side for me. I have had more time to reflect on many things, on my repertoire, on things I wanted to prioritize in the future. I also made recordings, including the new Elégie album.
How do you see your career evolving over the next five or ten years ?
I want to continue establishing myself internationally, playing on a variety of beautiful stages everywhere – Japan, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, North and South America.
Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano.
He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.
Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.
You can order Michael Johnson’s most recent book, in French and English, with drawings by Johnson: “Portraitures and caricatures: Conductors, Pianists, Composers” here.
This interview first appeared on the Facts and Arts website