anna zassimova, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

A wonderful old piano in our living room in Moscow. It was made in St Petersburg by Diderichs piano factory (which no longer exists), and belonged to my great-grandfather. He was German born (from Alsace) and came to Moscow to work in the chemical industry before the Revolution, met my great-grandmother and stayed in Russia for the rest of his life. This piano was the best “toy” in our flat, so I desperately wanted to be able to play it – not only trying to find some harmonies or sounds on it, but to be able to play the wonderful music I often heard at home as my mom played Chopin’s Etudes, or in concert hall.

My parents saw this, and sent me to audition for the Gneissin Academy when I was 5 years old, and I was accepted. The way the Soviet Union worked at this time, there was an entirely democratic process where any child from the country could audition for the special schools for music, or for ballet, for visual arts or science… After being in this school, I never knew myself as anything but a musician – although there was a time when I “rebelled” by pausing my career to take a second master’s degree in art history.

Writing my musicological dissertation about the life and music of Georges Catoire, a wonderful and at that time almost completely forgotten Franco-Russian composer, was also an enjoyable pause in my career – though not a pause in playing piano.

As a teenager I took lessons with Ljudmila Roschina, the student and for many years assistant of Samuil Feinberg. After that, I studied under Vladimir Tropp (his teacher, Theodor Guthmann, studied with Heinrich Neuhaus). Other than these facts, which caused my playing to be rooted so much in the tradition of the Russian School, I think my foray into visual art may well have defined me. My approach to piano has always been an emotional one (underpinned, obviously, by the technical demands) and having a wide artistic understanding of the worlds I bring to life, helps me to embody the works I perform, rather than just “play” them.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I have never regarded “career” as a great challenge, or even something to be thought about too much: life has always been both more important to me (than my career, but not the piano!) and, in its ways, more challenging. I think that developing one’s soul – which happens through living, both the good moments and the difficult ones – informs what can be honestly expressed by the musician.

With the benefit of hindsight, after winning the DAAD fellowship and being allowed to study anywhere in Germany, choosing the south, on the basis of my love of the nature, the air and the water, was perhaps not the most obviously practical way to plan my career. But it has taken my professional path in wonderful and sometimes unexpected directions. And as a result, I found myself being taught by Michael Uhde and Markus Stange, to whom I am eternally grateful for introducing me to the German piano tradition, as well as to a world of contemporary music I would otherwise never have encountered.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

This year, it was my recital at Klavierfestival Ruhr, performing works of Beethoven, my chamber music concert at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg with rare works of Tanejev, Catoire and Webern, and two concerts at the “En Suite” festival, hosted by Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, where in addition to performing works, I got to discuss them and link them with visual arts.

Of my recordings, I would say Vergessene Weissen and Sonata Reminiscenza, both featuring lesser-known Russian fin-de-siècle works and composers. This period of Russian history, the final blossoming of an exquisite Russian culture before its disappearance, has always been close to my heart. I find the works not only beautifully fragile but also so emotive, and still so important today, and I’m very happy that I am able to reintroduce audiences to these composers. My two Chopin albums are also important to me: I think that Chopin is the composer whose style most formed my approach to interpretation. I have adored the nobility and depth of his music since I was a teenager.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Oh, a very concrete question! I think my performances of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61, first Ballade, and Sonata op. 58, Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza, Sonata Tragica and Sonate op. 22, dedicated to Catoire, and, of course, works by Catoire, are all interpretations where I manage to say exactly what I am hearing and feeling in those pieces. These composers remain the authors who feel most natural to me, but I find it interesting how my answer changes with the passing years.

More recently, I’ve developed a sensitivity towards earlier periods. Now, at last, I think I can say that I have something to contribute to approaching them. I have always loved and adored Beethoven, which is a banal thing to say in a Beethoven jubilee-year, but it’s true. With Chopin one can never feel in the music how he has formed or struggled with the “matter”. On the contrary, with Beethoven it is spectacular to see, feel and play how he wrestled to make the material what it ended up being. Yet this same difficult, rebellious Beethoven, he has such a warm tenderness in his music, it is just incredible. And his extraordinary humour and strangeness!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I walk in the mountains or in the forest. I attend exhibitions. I read widely. And I look for quietness. This last thing is very difficult to find. Our world, among its many changes, has become terribly noisy, and one has to go far to find silence.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I know the pieces I would like to record each year, and tend to base my concerts on building programmes around these works. Mostly I am free in my decisions what to play. But sometimes I take part in projects with modern music – in these cases I receive a concrete proposal and score and then decide if I will play it.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

There are some halls with a wonderful atmosphere… I remember the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie in Katowice, built by the same architect who built the Elbphilharmonie. There are also some wonderful Baroque halls like the Ettlinger Schloss near Baden-Baden, with grand murals on the ceiling, which have completely different characters: these are smaller and the artist is nearer to the public, for example. I find these equally beautiful. In the case of smaller halls, I can also moderate the concert, giving the public some notes about the works or composers, which I always prefer to do, if the hall and atmosphere are suitable for it.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

My soul is divided in answering that question.

There are moments where I thought I was grateful to all my colleagues who try to make the classical popular (although I also thought they made their shows very banal in order for it to be more popular). In the last years I have changed my mind.

I think that the people who do not know what this music is about are only deceived by getting such a ‘show-product’ and not the real beauty, deepness and perfection of this art. Trying to smash classical music down to something understandable for everybody it is a false idea. The music will lose, this “everybody” will never experience the greatness of this music, and will not have the possibility to enter the world of serious art, and will just regard it as another entertainment. We have enough entertainment everywhere, and it unnessesary to turn Beethoven’s symphonies into a blockbuster experience, or try to make Chopin closer to public by having the performer acting as an erotic-showgirl almost lying on piano during performances. (Please understand me, if a musician looks beautiful or sensual, it is wonderful – my point is that the music and not the show always needs to be first).

I think what is most important and helpful is education from an early age. It is also an effort for people to be able to experience this education, even if it is suggested to them. And we can not expect it to happen without support.

I think back to my childhood, being brought up with music, and that for all its faults, this was something special about the Soviet Union in which I grew up, that is absent from today’s society.

In our small way, the readiness of us, musicians, to play to support these educational goals, even if it is not for direct profit, helps – but it is so far from enough, when one is dealing with a social problem.

If somebody eats only fast food, he or she can be a happy person, but the taste of this person will never be developed for really enjoying the fine cuisine. One can be perfectly happy because one does not know what one is missing: this is another philosophy, of course.

Taste and appreciation is not something with which we are born. We develop it as we grow up, based on what society causes us to experience and learn about. In our inter-connected, atomised age, only on the super-large scale – of politics and big tech – will development of taste and horizons actually occur. But are politicians and those who own our means of communication – Google, Facebook and so on – really interested in making people more sensitive and thoughtful? Or, put another way, could they ever be willing to put in the effort involved to make artistic education a priority? This is another question.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been so many. Most recently, playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. My hands are tiny. As students, we would, every year, have the “who has the smallest hands” competition and I would win each time. For years, I shied away from playing him, and the Second Concerto is, of course, the most difficult of Rachmaninoff’s works. The day I played the concert, I woke like a child, without any context, with a great joy, knowing their Christmas present was coming, or on their birthday. Then, seconds later, I remembered why this was. The music is a miracle: it is passion and beauty distilled.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a musician, for myself the most successful moments I have are those brief flickers, when rehearsing a piece, when one suddenly understands a buried structure, mood, feeling or moment, and how it ties everything together and how to give clarity to that expression: those moments when, after studying, developing and rehearsing, one has a flash of insight.

Success on stage is to have something important, strong and beautiful to communicate and be able to say it so clearly and convincingly, that the public will feel and may be understand what one meant – what the composer meant. The musician is a medium, and the most wonderful moments are when on stage I feel that the musical lines have become so clear in their idea, that I, performing it, do not know anymore whether I lead it, or it leads me in every moment. There is a moment when I literally feel my and my listeners breathing on my fingertips. It is worth living for it!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Personality, sensitivity, intelligence and honesty. It is not easy to combine it! On one hand, it seems we live in a time of technical perfection… but it is not the truth, if we really understand what the technique has to be. So often we hear the interpretations which are more “correct” than that of the great musicians of the past – but they lack an interesting and fine sound palette, understanding of timing in their musical declamation, understanding of polyphony and how to make it audible, how to work with the pedal. These interpretations all sound the same, and feel like they miss the deep feeling for the music which is the most important element of an interpretation. As a result, they are not perfect, technically as well.

I think the idea is to understand that there is not and cannot be a perfect version of a piece, because a pianist is not simply performing instructions as a robot, but rather allowing one’s own soul to serve the soul (as well as the composed score) of a work. This means that if there is nothing of the pianist in the work, something is missing – though, of course, the pianist remains the servant of the work that is written, rather than the other way round. And for this one needs real technique.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I understand more than I did 10 years ago, but I do not feel old, stillI. So I would prefer to be exactly as I am now, I guess… but I would have said the same thing 10 years ago! I am always curious where life will lead.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Freedom. For me, freedom does not mean to have no obligations – but rather the possibility to choose them.

What is your most treasured possession?

People whom I love. And curiosity to live. I inherited this curiosity and passion from my family and always thought it was natural and universal. With the time and experience I appreciate this gift more and more. I hope never to lose it.

What is your present state of mind?

Looking for balance.

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