When Elisabeth Leonskaja sits down to the Steinway at the Queen Elisabeth Hall tomorrow, the history of pianism will stand out in high relief. For Jacob Milstein, her tutor at the Moscow Conservatory in the Sixties, was a pupil of a pupil of Liszt, while the chamber partner who formed her mature style was the great Sviatoslav Richter: no wonder her touch is so compelling and authoritative.
Moreover, her beginnings were in that cradle of musical civilisation, Tbilisi. She confesses that since her parents came from Odessa, she can't claim Georgian citizenship, but to have spent her first 18 years there makes her a Georgian of a sort. She was offered Israeli citizenship in the Seventies, when musicians in that country realised the extent of her persecution as a Soviet Jew - she'd been prevented from touring to the West - but she opted for the Austrian citizenship, which was offered at the same time.
But she still loves Russia and its incomparable musical culture, and she looks back on her days with Richter with gratitude. "He liked to make music with young players," she says. "So I was roped in to play at his house, which was full of the things that were most important to him - paintings and flowers. If he was preparing a Mozart concerto, I would play the second piano beside him, and I often listened to him practise. At first, I wondered why he practised so slowly - like a sleepwalker, as though in a dream. It sounded so passive - whereas my playing was extremely active and fast. I only realised later that he was thinking deeply as he played, bringing the most intense concentration. I felt very privileged, but at the same time it was a terrible feeling to be beside this great musician, and to feel so small."
Now a great musician in her own right - students fight for places at her master-classes - she has an oracular way with the Romantics. Tomorrow, she'll bring us Liszt, Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
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