Wednesday, 29 June 2011


The Japanese pianist CHISATO KUSUNOKI is back in Singapore, performing two piano recital at the SIA-LaSalle School of the Arts on 12 and 15 July. As before, she has chosen to perform an all-Russian programme entitled "Romancing Russia", a sequel to her highly successful "From Russia With Love" recital in 2010. I was fortunate to have a few words with this Russophile, who leads a very interesting and cosmopolitan existence in London. The programme for both evenings are:

RACHMANINOV Morceaux de Fantaisie Op.3 (including that Prélude!)

RACHMANINOV Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36

LYADOV Variations on a Polish Song

MEDTNER Forgotten Melodies Op.39

Date: 12 & 15 July 2011 / Time: 7.30 pm, SIA LaSalle School / Tickets available at SISTIC.

A: You are a Japanese pianist, born in Germany, living in England, and specialising in Russian music. How did that exactly happen?

I spent my early childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany and London before returning to a small town called Yokosuka (near Yokohama) at the age of 3. We then came back to London again when I was 14 because of my father’s profession. I remember my first few years being a struggle for not being able to speak English. Interestingly it was during this period that I craved for widening my knowledge of the piano repertoire. Also I spent hours practising the piano everyday. Music thus became for me a form of escapism at that time. I frequently visited my local library which stocked a good selection of classical recordings including the rarer ones. My discovery of lesser-known Russian Romantic works began after I borrowed a CD of Nikolai Demidenko and Dmitri Alexeev playing Rachmaninov’s Suite No.2 for two pianos (on Hyperion). It so happened that Medtner’s only works for 2 pianos were also on the same disc. So that was my first introduction to the world of Nikolai Medtner.

What was it in Russian piano literature that captivated you the most? Did you have any favourites among the Russian composers? And Russian pianists?

My father always listened to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and I was lucky to be exposed to these works from an early age. I found a cassette tape of Sviatoslav Richter (left) playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto at home. His performance of the Rachmaninov and the music struck me so overwhelmingly, and since then I have been exploring much Russian music. I think it is the Slavic temperament which moves me from bottom of my heart; the warmth, depth of emotions and its narrative quality are so rich, as in most Russian arts. I also enjoy the challenge of the complex and pianistic writing of the late 19th to early 20th century piano music.

I have always loved Rachmaninov as a pianist and composer, and increasingly find myself programming his works in recitals. I would like very much to learn his Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op.22 and First Sonata in the future. I am constantly drawing inspirations from Russian pianists of the past and present, such as Medtner, Richter, Heinrich and Stanislav Neuhaus, Emil Gilels, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Shura Cherkassky, Maria Grinberg, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Mikhail Pletnev, Alexei Sultanov, Arcadi Volodos and Grigori Sokolov.

The piano music of Nikolai Medtner (left) appears in your recital programme. Some misguided people refer to him as a “poor man’s Rachmaninov”. What does one overcome such stereotypes and actually make his music popular?

I am often put off by this misconception, especially when I programme his music. To me Medtner’s music is as magnetic as that of Rachmaninov’s. And the depth and quality of his music seem to increase by repeated listening. Medtner’s musical language comes from his understanding of German music as well as his natural Slavic temperament. His mastery of counterpoint combined with dazzling virtuosic writing (he was a real composer-pianist) means that the textures can become both dense and highly complex. My former teacher Hamish Milne, who has dedicated himself to the study of Medtner, often said that it is the pianist’s challenge to bring clarity in such intricate writing. Also the narrative quality should be clearly brought out in the most expressive singing manner.

Are there other Russian composers that you think audiences should be more exposed to?

There are many composers that I have special affinity to and I hope to be able to introduce their works to wider audiences. I am especially fond of Myaskovsky’s piano sonatas and cello sonatas. His orchestral works are also extremely appealing. There are indeed many other composers to list: Anatol Lyadov ( his orchestral works were much loved by Rachmaninoff and he conducted many of them), Catoire, Lyapunov, Balakirev, Konstantin Eiges, Oleg Eiges, Georges Conus, Alexander Alexandrov and Samuil Feinberg.

Another composer you have championed is the Scotsman Ronald Stevenson (left). How did that come about?

I was lucky to have studied the piano with Nicholas Austin who introduced me to all sorts of unusual piano repertoire and Ronald Stevenson’s music was among them. Ronald Stevenson has been an important friend and mentor, and he has taught me most valuable lessons. He is also one of the last remaining members in the great tradition of Romantic composer-pianists, a the tradition that embraced Paderewski and Busoni, two figures with whom he feels a particular closeness.

What does Chisato enjoy outside of the world of music?

My interests are rather eclectic. I love animals, wildlife, dress making, many forms of arts and crafts, baking Central European cakes, yoga and literature. Amongst my favourite writers are Pushkin, Chekhov, Pasternak (incidentally he was also a composer!), Turgenev, Proust, Hardy, Zweig, Kundera, Mann and Kafka.

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