A pianist who travels with a taste of her country

A pianist who travels with a taste of her country


norman lebrecht

May 18, 2018

From our diarist, Anthea Kreston:

I first met the septuagenarian Georgian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja last year in Vienna, when she dined with us after one of Quartet concerts at the Konzerthaus. We were seated, all of us (Quartet, various friends and artistic staff), and in came an older woman, wearing an iridescent a-symmetrical dress, colorful, chunky necklace, and with a larger-than-life aura. One of my colleagues leaned in and said – that is Lisa – our long-time collaborator and the person we will be recording with next season.

After a round of double-kisses and hand-clutching, we settled in for an avant-guard Viennese dinner (complete with edible gold leaf on the final course). Part-way through, she pulled from her over-sized purse what seemed to be a long, shriveled sausage and a small, ancient wood-handled knife. She began to aggressively saw at the strange item, passing around pieces, nodding and smiling, saying – “this is from my country”. I popped a piece in my mouth, chewing the hardened, leather-like substance, guessing that I was, as I often find myself doing here, taking a little vacation from being a vegetarian. It had the trappings of an exotic land, a texture that was both challenging and satisfying, and a taste which was neither sweet nor savory – as if it were somehow concocted from the unwanted parts of unfamiliar foods. And so, my adventure with Elisabeth Leonskaja (sometimes referred to as the “Lioness of the Keyboard”) began.

This past week, we have been rehearsing intensely, and have now played our program together four times – Munich, Berlin and twice in Vienna, her adopted home-town. She was born and raised in Tbilisi, an ancient cobblestone city which has a long, complicated history, with periods under Persian and Russian rule. Born in 1945 to Polish-Jewish heritage, when Tbilisi was the capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, she was early recognized as an extraordinary talent, sent to the Moscow Conservatory, and won a slew of competitions. It became clear that, because of her Jewish heritage, she would be unable to realize her potential (she was forbidden to perform in the West), and both Israel and Austria extended citizenship to her. She chose, in 1978, to make Vienna her home, and has remained there, performing with nearly all of the major orchestras of the world. There are few remaining pianists of the old Russian piano school, and her approach has an almost visceral link to the great Russian masters – her musical voice always true, personal, and with a gravitas which in unwavering.

Tomorrow, onto Dresden, and then to the recording studio – four days for this wonderful Shostakovich Piano Quintet with our incredible recording engineer and team. My favorite part so far – being able to play the slow movement of the Brahms Quintet for an encore (which is a long end for a very long and challenging program of Shostakovich fifth quartet, Dvorak Piano Quintet and Shostakovich Piano Quintet). The second violin plays rarely in this movement, and I get to just stand, and listen, to the wonderful world all around me.


  • Caravaggio says:

    The reminder of this great pianist is most welcome. She will be the focus of my listening sessions today.

  • Proud standpartner says:

    You should write a book Ms. Kreston.

  • Zenaida says:

    Ah, you most probably were given a piece of “churchkhela” – that wonderful Georgian concoction made of thickened grape juice (or apricot, or apple juice) and flour, rolled into a thin sheet, left to dry in the sun and then filled with whole hazelnuts or walnuts and made into a sausage-like roll. Neither really sweet nor savory, it is quite delicious and as you say, very satisfying. Every family seems to have its special recipe and it is ubiquitous if you travel the country.

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Dear Zenaida,
      That is exactly it. I just googled and saw a photo. There is nothing quite as personal as someone sharing the taste and texture of their culture with you – it opens your eyes in ways you could never imagine…
      Thanks for sharing,

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Nice story. I’d like to see more of them like it.

  • esfir ross says:

    First time EL advertised as Georgian pianist. Dmitry Bashkirov also born and studied in Tbilisi as other Russian speaking musicians. There was time in past that Georgian tolerate different cultures. Henrich Neuhaus, Rosina Lhevinne and her husband taught in Tbilisi. El was friend of Svyatoslav Richter and this help with career.

  • Dave T says:

    I would be curious to know how many languages she speaks: Georgian, Russian, Polish, German, others?

    • YKW says:

      Russian [Native]
      + German [Proficient]
      + English [Good]
      + Georgian [Passive: Reading+Listening], but anyway you should consider that she attended school there
      + French [Conversation]
      Other (Spanish, etc. etc.)

  • Michal says:

    Dear Anthea,
    it was a fantastic concert last week in Vienna with Ms. Leonskaja. I am sure all of us Artemis fans are looking forward to the Shostakovich CD and wish that the beautiful Quintet by Dvořák would be recorded as well. You mentioned a book before the concert about someone spending a year with string quartet. Would you mind writing the name of the book please?
    Best wishes and nice time for the recording

  • Marg says:

    This is a delightful insight into the intersections of great musicians with others. I wish you well in the recording – look forward to hearing the CD. And amen to the book idea! I have always thought your diary entries could easily be edited into a really interesting book.