Pianist Polina Osetinskaya: Not because it is difficult to play, but because it is difficult to play well

World-class pianist Polina Osetinskaya is one of the four prodigy-called musicians from the Soviet Union, standing alongside violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, as well as pianist Evgeny Kissin. She is glad to leave the past of the childhood fame behind her and is proud to make a transformation to worlds most respected concerting pianists, which has been a long and uneasy journey for her. The pianist today is known for her unusual repertoire, including works by the contemporary post-avant-garde composer as well as traditional, classical works. After performing at the Salzburg Festival this week Polina Osetinskaya will appear at Carnegie Hall next season with Maxim Vengerov and for her project “An Unknown Friend”. Ona Jarmalavičiūtė, a musicologist, has conducted an interview with a performer about her performance style, struggles of youth her and opinion about the music business of today.


First of all, I wanted to congratulate you and ask you about yesterdays concert in Salzburger Festspiele. What was the experience?

It is an interesting story because I was invited to play at the Salzburg Festival first the first time in 1991 when I was a little girl. It’s strange, but I made a decision not to go, due to personal reasons. I thought that I would meet my father here and I just ran away from home, so I didn’t want to meet him in the nearest future. And maybe if I would come, my life would have changed dramatically. But I have to say, that I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life that had no common sense. This is the first time when I go to the festival as a performer, not as a guest. I do think this is a very special place, at least it used to be, but I don’t find it less or more interesting than any other big concert venue in the world. But This is an experience of pushing yourself into a situation, where you are usually judging others and now you are in the position of those being judged. this is another step of realizing your self-esteem.

How was the collaboration with violinist Maxim Vengerov?

As you probably know, I am doing a solo career and I am not a chamber musician. On the other hand, I do enjoy playing chamber music, especially with other musicians that I find very interesting. I am not someone who would play with someone just because they’re famous. In order to play with another person and get it done well, you have to have a combination of great musicianship, intellect, and passion. This is what combines in Maxim Vengerov in all ways because he is a grand violinist, he is a great musician and he has a lot of passion. That’s why we started playing.

We have known each other for thirty years now or even more because there was four of us as child prodigies in the Soviet Union at perestroika times. It was A. Vengerov, E. Kissin, V. Repin and me. I was the only girl and three of them boys left Russia when the perestroika happened. But, as I already said, was making decisions out of common sense, so I decided that I need to stay in Russia and learn to study music with a great teacher. Then I went to Sankt Petersburg and became a pupil of a great teacher Marina Wolf. When they were already touring Europe and the United States, I was working really hard at school, trying to get what was missing in my early years. Because during my early childhood I was taught by my father, who wasn’t a professional musician. So when the guys would be learning with good teachers from the beginning, I was taught by an amateur. So when I was thirteen, I desperately needed to go to school.

And then a few years ago Maxim happened to be in Sankt Petersburg and he came to my recital. It was simple. He said “well, why shouldn’t we play together?“, and I answered, „well, why not?”. We played our first concert together three years ago and since then we play together from five to ten times a year. We’ve toured Italy together twice, now we are playing in the Salzburg Festival and next season we are doing Carnegie hall and Musikverein together.

This is a unique experience to play with Maxim because we actually don’t really need rehears together. We have this extra feeling for each other. I don’t need to look at him, I feel everything and the same happens with him. Even if we meet just before the concert and go on stage, it will still be a good companionship in an ensemble. I find this very rare.

What aspects do you discuss with him? Still, you are rehearsing a little bit.

We discuss style mostly. For example yesterday (2019-07-30) at the concert we played Mozart sonata. And in some ways, I feel it a little bit different than Maxim. He is still more in a big romantic tradition and I am more reliable to historically informed performance. I am not a baroque soloist, of course, but in my own solo performances I take on the stylistic. We try to find the balance between his and my manner of playing Mozart. We talk about tempo, style, and other details. But we don’t talk much, we just start to play and something happens in between.

We basically discuss whether to open the piano roof or not to, because I always insist to open the roof and Maxim insist on closing it. We find the solution because the halls and the pianos are always different. At one concert we may play with an open roof and in another with a closed one.

Talking about the experience in the House of Mozart hall, was there anything special about it?

I think the acoustics in the house of Mozart is very wet and also it was hot. So it was difficult to deal with. You know, the instruments are very delicate. We tried the rehearsal with the open roof and then we closed it, because it sounded better. The piano also reacts to humidity so it didn’t sound dry at all. And it was tricky to play with a piano in that state, especially pieces of F. Schubert. Because the music of that time was written for a different piano and not the instrument that we are playing now. In Schubert’s time, it was a completely different sound and completely different mechanics. Such effects are very hard to achieve on the modern piano. I would say Schubert’s Fantasia for Violin and Piano in C is one of the most difficult pieces that has been ever written for both instruments. And not because it is difficult to play, but because it is difficult to play well. Because it shouldn’t sound like you do something – it should sound like a thunderstorm, or raindrops, etc. But this is why we spend thousands of hours at the instrument.

I’ve heard that you really like to perform contemporary music and your programs are quite nontraditional. How do you choose your repertoire?

I find it very boring to play another “Moonlight Sonata”. I think classical musicians were born not to only please the audience, but to also teach the audience, make it more sophisticated, let it know more music it had known before. When talking about modern music, I choose pieces that I like personally and I feel that if I love it, the audiences will love it too. I am getting dozens of letters from composers that would like me to play their music. And some of it is very nice. But it’s so many that in order to make a choice, I would need to have another year of life so that I would listen and play it all. And then I would make my choice. I like minimalism, especially when there is something different in it. For example, I don’t play P. Glass creations, but I do play Pavel Karmanov, who’s pieces are not only minimalistic, but it also includes some allusions to Handel, or to baroque, or to Schnittke, etc. It is quite boring to perform just one style. I like the mixture. And I do confess, I like harmony, I like tragic and conflicting in music. I hope for the beauty and harmony in every genre or style of music.

When you are listening to the music of other performers, whether it would be a recording or a live performance, what do you resonate with?

Well, I don’t actually listen to the music that doesn’t resonate with me. But I like not only piano repertoire – I do listen to a lot of symphonic music and operas. With age, it gets more difficult to go to listen to somebody at the concert. When you are young you have to get a lot of listening experience that gives you depth and knowledge of different styles. But then, later on, you find out that you like fewer performances. Then you either go to concerts and find yourself disappointed all the time or rarely you get a serious shock in a good sense. So I prefer to listen to concerts less, but when I go, I prefer to expect a high level of musical shock. A lot of friends of mine are doing great music. That’s why I go to their concerts a lot.

You come from the Russian school of piano playing and I wanted to ask what kind of values do you think it brings into your performance?

I would say that Russian school is not only about the technique, but also about the intellectual approach to music. You have to think of what you are playing and combine that knowledge with the sound. But in a technical sense, I think that Chinese school will go much further than the Russian school did. They start to teach kids early and these pianists can play and interpret everything. Of course, there are a lot of pianists today that are born to play fast and loud. I don’t find it particularly very interesting, because there are thousands of pianists like that. You can’t choose one, because they are all great. I value great musicians more than great pianists if you can feel the difference. There are a lot of great pianists, who can play piano in every way, but there are not so much of real genuine musicianship and great intellectual minds. I hope that Russian school gave that type of musicians to the world that are also great minds and great spirits.

In yesterdays concert half of the audience was from far east. Do you notice that classical music is more in the interest of the far east audience than in Western?

In many ways, people from the far east are interested in everything – art, figure scatting, music, etc. And they probably have the possibilities of being interested. Not many Europeans have the chance to travel and see the world – far eastern people have that opportunity and I think that is great.

I’ve heard that you also play other instruments, like the harpsichord, organ, etc. I wanted to ask, how different is your playing style with these instruments?

It is different from the piano because there is a different approach. If you start to play harpsichord the same way you play piano, it would have no sound, because the depth of the key is not made to be touched as gently as we do on the piano. You have to adjust your ability to each concrete instrument, but I do love playing the harpsichord. I don’t do it quite often, because I am very busy with piano most of the time, but when I have the chance I am taking it, as well as playing the organ.

There is this concept of the wunderkind and you have been called one. I wanted to ask you what is your perspective on this phenomenon?

I don’t find it very natural. Being hysterical about a wunderkind is like being in the circus, looking at something that you don’t find appropriate, but you still continue to look. I have never positioned myself a wunderkind because the saddest part is when they grow up and people start treating them like regular players. It’s always very painful to the person who has been called a wunderkind before. The most difficult part is to become a real musician after that, instead of being just a toy for a group of adults, who looks like you as you would be in the circus.

How was this transition for you?

It was a very painful and long story because in school I spent a lot of years with ten, fifteen hours of work every day to become that type of musician that I would love and respect myself. This to me is a more important achievement than being called a wunderkind. But the world likes that story about a little girl in a pink dress, who is playing like Mozart or like Go. And we still have a lot of wunderkinds these days. Especially parents and teachers are the ones that keep rolling this business. Because it is a business that has a lot of money on it.

What was your most strongly felt experiences while performing?

To me, the most difficult is to achieve the absolute freedom from yourself, when you are free from your own thoughts, perception, fears and everything that keeps you on the ground. At such moments you allow others to experience the real beauty. That’s what we as musicians are here for. To make people feel that they are not on the ground, but somewhere in heaven.

How do you imagine the future of piano playing?

Today there are millions of pianists in the world and we also see that music is business nowadays. It wasn’t like this until the 1970s. Then it became big business when we see new names after competitions, debuts, but it changes every three-four years. Public needs to have new heroes. And there is always some fresh flesh in the music scene for the next cycle.

What the business does to young musicians these days! I wouldn’t live a year like that. They play around 250-300 concerts a year, which is an incredible amount. When we go on stage, we give a lot of our energy. But later we have to collect it again in order for the next concert to be as good as the last one. It still requires a few days or a week – you have to think, work, stay in silence. But business requires to concert nonstop – you are playing 25 concerts per month and you have no time to collect your energy. This is very exhausting and when I am listening to the concerts of musicians that are working like that, I hear nothing. I can’t find anything in their performances, because there is no thought, no music, no soul. They are just empty.

We don’t know what it’s going to be like in twenty years. Maybe everybody will listen to robots that will be playing the piano in any style. Maybe there will be the computer invented that would play any repertoire like your favorite pianist from the old days. That would play me Chopin mazurkas like Richter, or Horowitz. Maybe artificial intelligence could do that for us, who knows.

Do you have any daily rituals for your technique?

My only daily ritual is to get an opportunity to practice at least a couple of hours and just have time for myself. But I am never succeeding. Now I have about six different programs to prepare in a row because I have a new project, a next solo program and then some orchestra, chamber music programs.

What do you feel are the main features of your playing style?

I am trying to look at the music itself. Not the virtuosity or the difficulty, I try to see the soul of music, what’s inside. And probably my audiences are getting it from me.

What were you taught by your teacher Marina Wolf?

Marina told me about listening to the structure of music. She would always tell me – we have to hear everything: your right hand, your left hand, the different levels of music. All shall be heard in once. When everything sounds good then we know how to move according to the musical thought. Because combining the structure with the thought – that’s what gives you a real sound of the instrument. And sometimes the sound is the only thing by which we can tell one pianist from the other. The sound is the main quality of the piano player, I would say.

I also got a huge impact and knowledge of a piano playing from my Professor at the Moscow Conservatory, Vera Gornostaeva. I was studying with her when I was 8 years old – and then I returned for the post graduate study, when I finished the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, in 1998. It wasn’t much time, but her talent, passion for music, art of teaching and an enormous cultural background is what gave me a lot. I owe her much of my knowledge. And I’m grateful for having her in my life not only as a teacher, but also as a human being, and an older friend.

Thank you for the conversation!

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