Pianist returns to Baltimore, Beethoven

Guest from Russia, Elisso Virsaladze will play with BSO

April 26, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Elisso Virsaladze strides across the lobby of the Harbor Court Hotel looking like a study in black - jet black hair framing her face; jet black outfit from head to toe. There's something almost Ann Rice-ish about her. Then she smiles.

Virsaladze, who will be piano soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director Yuri Temirkanov this weekend, reveals an ebullient personality and the kind of firm opinions you would expect from one of Russia's best musicians.

BSO audiences last heard her in 1995; a return two years ago was canceled due to the death of her husband. She almost didn't make it this week.

"There were terrible problems with the visa," Virsaladze says. "Even during the Soviet Union, it was never that bad."

Some last-minute string-pulling by BSO supporters in high places helped clear the way for the pianist to revisit not just Baltimore, but Beethoven.

"I reminded Yuri that we did Beethoven's First Concerto together in 1968 - and afterward, never," Virsaladze says. "We've done the Second, Third and Fifth since, but not the First."

The Concerto No. 1 signaled the arrival of a daring new talent on the Viennese scene at the turn of the 19th century. Boldness, poignancy and humor are in equal abundance.

"There is an absolutely fantastic, incredible second movement," Virsaladze says, "one of his most beautiful."

For the BSO concerts, the pianist will play the most extensive of the cadenzas Beethoven wrote for the first movement.

"This cadenza is not so often played," she says. "It's wonderful and exceptionally long. There are so many tricks and unpredictable things in it, and so much humor inside - if you can do it right."

Virsaladze, who was born in what was then the Soviet Republic of Georgia, is noted for her interpretations of Beethoven and other German repertoire. Has her approach to this music been affected by the movement for historical authenticity in performance practice?

"No, no," she says. "I hate it. It makes me crazy. People try to assure us that this is the way to play, which is absolute nonsense. I think they play this `authentic' way because the can't play normally.

"It's very simple - a performance is either good or bad. You have to make music come alive. It doesn't matter whether you are playing on Beethoven's piano or a modern one, as long as the listener is moved."

In a concerto, of course, the pianist can't do all the moving.

"It is very, very important to feel that you are absolutely supported by the conductor, that you do not feel alone," Virsaladze says. "Temirkanov is always together with you. He is not only accompanying, he is always inside of the music from beginning to the end."

The compliment is returned.

"I have known and worked with Elisso for more than 30 years," Temirkanov says. "She is a wonderful artist and pianist, and an incredible personality.

"Lots of wonderful pianists have emerged in recent times. What distinguishes her from many other very fine artists is her attitude toward music; it is completely idealistic. She serves music with a capital `M.' "

Virsaladze started that service at a tender age, receiving piano lessons from her grandmother, Anastasia Virsaladze.

"I was very lucky to have that experience," the pianist says. "She always had terrific taste and a fantastic sound. But she didn't play so much because she had a problem with her hands. So she always tried to make it easier for her students; she understood the technical problems they faced."

In piano circles, lineage of teachers counts for a lot. Anastasia studied with Anna Esipova, former wife and concert partner of the celebrated Theodor Leschetizky, teacher of Paderewski and Artur Schnabel.

"When my grandma passed her conservatory exam, the jury included Rimksy-Korsakov and Glazunov," Virsaladze says. "To know a person who knew them was incredible."

The pianist went on to study in Moscow with Heinrich Neuhaus, teacher of such 20th-century keyboard giants as Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and Yakov Zak, another Neuhaus pupil. It's an enviable pedigree, and she is passing on this legacy to her students in Moscow and Munich.

As a product of the much-admired Russian school of piano playing, Virsaladze takes an optimistic view of its future.

"There is no end to the extremely talented [Russian students]," she says. "Really. It is very difficult to explain the phenomenon. Russians are very gifted, very artistic souls. Maybe it's because of the bad conditions we have; maybe that stimulates people. I don't know."

Being gifted never means an easy road to success, especially in the new Russia.

"In the Soviet Union, when young people entered competitions all expenses were paid by the government," she says. "Now you have to find the money for a plane ticket and find the cheapest hotel. It is always a problem to find support.

"And it is very difficult to get concert engagements in Russia now. If they do get invitations from managers, the salary is nothing; the pianists do it only to feel better. I tell my students it is like a jungle and they have to find their way."

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