Sonya Lifschitz breaks down her favourite classical recordings
Pianist Sonya Lifschitz is an accomplished Ukrainian-Australian performer, educator, researcher, and collaborator of international repute. Her playing has been described as "a life force of extraordinary density and capacity", which you’ll have the opportunity to hear when she joins acclaimed tenor Andrew Goodwin for a Sydney Morning Masters concert on Wednesday 1 June, 11am.
Ahead of this, Sonya detailed an account of her favourite albums recorded by performing giants, such as Richter, Gould and Fleisher. Sonya has a love for music that is clear not only when she herself performs, but is also evident in her astute observations and extensive knowledge of her most treasured classical recordings. Listen to Sonya's selections below, and read her in-depth take on what makes these albums so brilliant.
Sviatoslav Richter: Schubert Sonatas D.958 and D.960
Richter’s legacy as one of 20th-century’s greatest pianists is well-documented by his vast recording catalogue, and his place in the top tier of classical music pantheon is undisputed. For many pianists even today, Richter’s performances, characterised by their monolithic monumentality, Apollonian purity, intoxicating tone, and astonishing structural cohesion, are still the benchmark for much of classical repertoire. Schubert’s last piano sonata, considered one of the pinnacles of piano repertoire and a work I have performed many times in my life, has been recorded by many of world’s greatest pianists. Yet for me, none (save Leon Fleisher’s late recording of it) capture the inexplicable, transcendent beauty and sublime purity of this piece the way Richter does. This is one of the slowest recordings of the work, and it achieves eternity, cosmic tranquillity, metaphysical heights and aching tenderness.
Glenn Gould - Bach Goldberg Variation BWV988 (1981 recording)
Glen Gould’s late recording of Bach’s astonishing masterpiece, the Goldberg Variations, was recorded a year before his death and long after Gould abandoned the concert stage in favour of the pristine environment of the recording studio. Gould’s earlier recording of this work, made in 1955, not only launched his career as one of world’s greatest musical superstars and pianistic enigmas, it also firmly established the Goldberg Variations as one of the pillars of classical music repertoire and one of the greatest works, if not the greatest, written for the keyboard. Before Gould’s legendary 1955 recording, the ‘Goldbergs’, as they are often affectionately called, were considered an esoteric, technically near-impossible work to perform, rarely, if ever, heard on concert stages. As such, Gould was a pioneer in everything he did – from his tackling of unknown repertoire, to his mesmerising and at times eccentric interpretations of established repertoire, to his radio broadcasts, to his way-ahead-of-its-time innovations in recording techniques and post-production.
For me, this 1981 recording of the Goldbergs, a work synonymous with Gould, is a kind of summation of his life and legacy…an interpretation and performance that defies the laws of physics and transcends what is achievable by a mere mortal. The tempi are extremely slow, yet the music never drags; the articulation is very dry, yet the piano sings; the performance runs for an uninterrupted 51 minutes, yet it passes in a breath. The overall feeling I get when I listen to this recording is that of standing inside a great cathedral, watching its arches, its soaring domes, its walls, its stained glass windows materialise all around you…almost like watching Creation at work. Listen out particularly to Variation 25 and let your heart be broken wide open by its transcendent beauty in the hands of this ingenious man.
Leon Fleisher: Brahms Piano Concerti Nos.1-2; Beethoven Piano Concerti Nos.1-5; Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24; Brahms 16 Waltzes; Mozart Piano Concerto No.25, K.503
One of America’s most revered, celebrated and distinguished musicians, pianist Leon Fleisher’s meteoric ascent to musical Olympus began at age nine, when he was accepted as a pupil by the great Arthur Schnabel (a direct musical descendant from Beethoven via Czerny and Leschetizky). At 16, Fleisher made his debut at Carnegie Hall, performing a work that would become a leitmotif, a golden thread running through his life – Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto. The great Pierre Monteux, who conducted the New York Philharmonic on the night, called Fleisher "the pianistic find of the century." Seven years later, at 23, Fleisher became the first American pianist to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition, which catapulted him further into the pantheon of musical greats. By 30, Fleisher reached the zenith of the classical musical world – an invitation by the legendary Hungarian conductor George Szell to record both Brahms concerti and all five Beethoven concerti with the Cleveland Orchestra, heard on this album. Critics hailed Fleisher as “transcendent,” “spellbinding,“ and having “this kind of Apollonian perfection…When you hear something that he's playing, you think that is the way it needs to be played.”
Back in 2001, as a Fulbright Scholar, I moved to the United States to study with this legendary artist at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The four years I spent with Fleisher were a revelation, a portal into stratospheric heights and depth of musical insight.
He was a musical linguist, who could alchemically transform the black dots on the page into the most distilled and irrefutably logical musical language, illuminating its grammar, each punctuation mark intact. He was a musical poet, sculpting his sentences and silences when he spoke in lessons the way he would sculpt the most exquisite musical phrase, making the ineffable and the inexplicable completely tangible with one turn of a phrase, with one elegant aphorism. He was a philosopher, for whom notions of the ‘transcendent’, ‘eternal’, ‘timeless’, ‘cosmic’ were inseparable from the interpretation of Germanic repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms were his musical gospel. This album is a testament to Fleisher’s unparalleled artistry, breathtaking musicianship and titanic pianism.
The Hilliard Ensemble and Christoph Poppen - Morimur (Bach Violin Partita No.2)
It is rare that one comes across a recording so beautiful that it changes one’s life. Morimur, performed by the renowned Hilliard Ensemble with violinist Christoph Poppen is one of those recordings. It interpolates Bach’s Violin Partita No.2 in D minor, and its ravishing, sumptuously beautiful Chaconne, with excerpts from Bach’s Easter Cantatas that are said to be subtly woven into the score of this Partita and the Chaconne especially, as a musical metaphor for Death, Grief and the possibility of Resurrection. Transcendently performed, stunningly recorded, and exquisitely curated, this is an album I plan to take with me to the deserted island if I happen to find myself there with no other forms of entertainment.
Maria Yudina - Mozart Piano Concerto No.23, K.488 and works by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven
Maria Yudina is a truly remarkable figure in the musical history of the 20th century. A contemporary of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and others, she lived and worked under the oppressive and brutal dictatorship of Josef Stalin. Yudina was one of the most outspoken critics of Stalin’s regime. She defied his tyranny, performed music that was branded ‘anti-Soviet’, read poetry in her concerts by banned and exiled poets, openly practiced her religion in a strictly atheist country, and, remarkably, lived to tell the story. How? She was Stalin’s favourite pianist. Her extraordinary power as both an artist and a human being made even a tyrant like Stalin, whose purges led to the ‘disappearance’ (execution) of millions of Russian artists, musicians, poets, writers and intellectuals, fear and revere her. Growing up in Soviet Russia, I was a fervent admirer of Yudina – her character, her fierce, uncompromising devotion to her art, her fearless championing of her fellow artists’ banned work, and of course, her pianism and musicianship, characterised by unique personality, depth, monumentality, fervour and boldness.
The recording of Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 on this album has a very special place in history: the story goes that while listening to the radio one day, Stalin heard Yudina's performance of this concerto. The next night he called the station and requested that the record be sent to him so he could hear it at his leisure. “Of course!” the radio station employee said, “the record would be sent right over”. There was one problem though: What Stalin heard on the radio wasn't a record, it was a live broadcast. There was no record. The radio committee panicked, but they had to come up with something. Saying ‘No’ to Stalin was not an option. Nor was making him wait. That night, both Yudina and an orchestra were woken up and called into the studio and they recorded all night. It took three conductors to finish the recording. A single copy of the record was made in the morning and the recording was delivered to Stalin. When, on March 5, 1953, Stalin was found dead in his bed, spinning on his record player was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, performed by Maria Yudina. It was the last thing he had listed to.
Evgeny Kissin - Chopin Piano Concerti Nos. 1-2
For every young pianist growing up in Soviet Russia in the early 80s, Evgeny Kissin was a kind of mythical figure – a young wunderkind, a prodigy gifted, seemingly from the gods, with an almost otherworldly musical talent. His performances as a young child, no older than 10-11 years old, were regularly broadcast on national television, making him a role model for so many Soviet children. When I, as a young kid myself, only a few years Kissin’s junior, watched and listened to him play on TV, I was completely awe-struck by his tremendous sensitivity, emotional and poetic depth, innate musicality and pianistic prowess. At the age of 12, Kissin released an album of both Chopin’s piano concertos, performed with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Dmitri Kitayenko. My parents bought this recording for me, which became a kind of inspirational anthem, something to aspire to, dream about and even imagine possible if I only practiced hard enough (surely this must have been my parents’ ploy to make me practice more)! I was about 9 then. Now, as a grown musician, my enthusiasm for Kissin and his artistry has lessened, and I would probably not place him in the pantheon of my most beloved and revered performers, but that LP of the 12-year old Kissin, angelic-looking and performing Chopin, has forever been etched in my mind as a kind of musical holly relic, a blueprint for musical genius in its most innocent, unaffected expression.
Join us on Wednesday 1 June for Sonya Lifschitz's Sydney Morning Masters concert with Andrew Goodwin. Book your tickets here.