Meet Katya Apekisheva, Jack Liebeck and Tolstoy…

…And hear about how Katya and Jack sold 200 CDs in half an hour flat – or rather, in tune – on a TV shopping channel. Is this the way forward for classical CD sales? Katya is playing at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday evening and the recital is heartily recommended. Here’s my interview with her on The JC’s website. (It’s been cut – it was a busy week at the JC what with new year etc – so I am also pasting in the longer version below, after the filmshow.)

Reading up on Katya led me to discover Tim Meara’s 2002 film The Kreutzer Sonata in which Katya and Jack perform Beethoven’s violin sonata of the same moniker together with extracts of the Tolstoy story read by Simon Rouse and a dance interpretation by Rafael Bonachela. Composition, performance, literature, acting, dance and film meld into a sort of gesamtkunstwerk which I find interesting and compelling – and the playing is terrific.

What do you think? A new art form in its own right? Or does the involvement of so many different strands overgild a lily? 

And here’s the long version of the interview:

Devotees of the Leeds International Piano Competition may remember seeing Katya Apekisheva in the final back in 1996, playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto to the manner born. She was just 20 and her performance snaffled a top prize, even if not the number one slot that some thought she deserved.

Apekisheva, now 34, is currently preparing for a recital at the Wigmore Hall: she’s performing a programme of music from her native Russia alongside works by French composers. Looking back at Leeds now, she admits that that concerto was more ‘on the edge’ than her audience would have known.

“I didn’t expect to reach the final,” she recounts, “so I hadn’t even taken along the music of the concerto. I had to track down a copy at a day’s notice. It was a very high-pressure event, broadcast live on TV and radio, and Simon Rattle was conducting. I was furious with myself and my teacher nearly killed me!”

The incident hasn’t hurt long term, though. Apekisheva has won plenty more prizes, the prestigious Terence Judd Award and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Soloist of the Year among them. Her debut recording, a Grieg recital, was Classic FM’s Disc of the Week and her most recent CD, Brahms’s complete violin sonatas with the violinist Jack Liebeck has brought the pair’s well-established musical collaboration bounding to prominence. The Guardian praised Apekisheva as “outstanding” and the Sunday Times declared: “There are many great partnerships in this music on disc, but this one ranks with the recent best.”

Apekisheva’s pianism is grounded firmly in the Russian tradition that underpins her musical and family backgrounds. Her parents are both pianists, working principally as vocal coaches, and as a child at the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow she shared a teacher, Anna Kantor, with Evgeny Kissin until the latter’s family left the country and Kantor went with them.

It wasn’t only her teacher who emigrated. Apekisheva’s family experienced a rift when the USSR allowed a first wave of Russian Jews to move to Israel. “My grandfather’s sister and mother left in the early 1970s,” she says, “but my grandfather stayed behind: his wife didn’t want to leave her parents. He didn’t see them again for 15 years. In Jerusalem his sister was visiting the Wailing Wall, writing notes praying that she would see her brother again before she died. Finally he was able to go.”

Apekisheva first went to Israel with her mother when she was 14. “I’ll never forget the scenes at the airport when we arrived,” she says. “So many families were being reunited for the first time – people were in tears everywhere.”

Two years later, Apekisheva moved to Israel herself to continue her piano studies, having faced a crisis over finding an appropriate teacher when Anna Kantor left Russia. After two and a half years there, she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. Here she studied with Irina Zaritskaya (1939-2001), herself a Russian Jewish émigré and one of the UK capital’s best-loved piano professors.

A shock ensued, though, when she finished college and began trying to earn a living as a professional musician. The public often hears only about megastar virtuosos, ex-prodigies who make millions from childhood onwards. But for the vast majority of musicians, that existence looks like another planet.

“At college you enjoy student life, there are college competitions and everything feels great,” says Apekisheva. “Then suddenly you’re in this big world, and it’s incredibly tough. I won some prizes, but you can never feel truly secure. This is not a criticism, but I do think that at music colleges they should do more to prepare students for what life will be like in the profession.

“Maybe it was good that I went through this time, struggling a bit. London is such an expensive city and I had no support from anyone. I did accompanying, teaching, any job people offered me.”

Apekisheva has an extra advantage, though, quite apart from her fabulous technique, intense natural musicianship and enquiring mind: she loves playing chamber music. “It is a huge part of my life,” she says. “It’s wonderful, especially when you are no longer taking lessons, to be able to work with great musicians who are completely different from you, who inspire you and from whom you can learn. And socially it’s so much fun — playing solo all the time can be extremely lonely. Ideally I’d like to divide my time equally between solo work and chamber music.”

“I’ve been working with Jack Liebeck for years; we know each other so well now that it’s very easy to play together. He’s a wonderful musician and a good friend. He also takes my photographs! It’s a collaboration on every level.”

Apekisheva has a surprise hobby: she’s a football fan and an Arsenal supporter. “It’s led to some funny moments because Jack is a Liverpool supporter and once we did a concert together just when our teams were playing against each other in the Champions’ League,” she laughs. “Some people got the wrong end of the stick!”

Other frequent colleagues are the cellists Natalie Clein and Gemma Rosefield, the violist Krzysztof Chorzelski and, more unusually, another pianist: Charles Owen, who was a fellow pupil of Zaritskaya: “We’ll be playing most of Mozart’s music for four hands and two pianos at a Mozart festival at Kings Place next year. Our favourite piece is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the piano duet version. It’s a huge challenge and great fun.”

On 15 September, though, Apekisheva will be on her own on the Wigmore Hall platform. Her programme includes Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a dazzling virtuoso roller-coaster of a work; it will feature in Apekisheva’s next solo CD. She’s pairing the Russian repertoire with music from France which, she says, “matches Russian music very well since there are so many cultural links.” The music of each nation influenced the other, and both place great emphasis on colour and atmosphere.

With concertos in Germany and Russia, a Wigmore Hall coffee concert with Liebeck, three duo concerts with Owen and the release of her new CD, amongst other things, next season holds many exciting moments for Apekisheva. And she and Liebeck have recently found a startling new way to sell CDs. “We did a guest spot on the TV shopping channel QVC, playing Brahms to promote the disc. It was a strange place to play — they were talking about Brahms one moment and shampoo the next — but they sold around 200 CDs in half an hour.”

Is that the way forward for recordings of classical music, then? Apekisheva declares, with a grin, “Whatever works!”

Katya Apekisheva, Wigmore Hall, 15 September 7.30pm. Box office: 020 7935 2141

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