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Interview with Anna Vinnitskaya
On 14th January virtuoso pianist Anna Vinnitskaya is once again the guest musician at the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a new addition to her repertoire this season. Born in the Russian city of Novorossiysk, the 2007 winner of the Reine Elisabeth Competition has been a resident of Hamburg for the last fifteen years, first as a student of Evgeni Koroliov and lately as a professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater.

You’re quoted as saying that the “Russian school” of piano playing is dead because so many great teachers left the country in the Soviet era. What does the “Russian school” mean to you?

The “Russian school” dates back to the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus – a German, by the way! For decades he was the best piano teacher working in Moscow and himself trained a lot of fine piano teachers, one of which was Lev Oborin, who passed his knowledge on to my two professors, Evgeni Koroliov and Sergei Ossipienko. My own training began in Rostow under Sergei Ossipienko when I was ten years old. He did a lot of work with me on my sound and got me to try out various ways of striking the keys. Back then a teacher would invest enormous amounts of time and energy in his pupils. Sometimes, in the run-up to a competition, he gave me 4 or 5 hours of non-stop instruction. If it hadn’t been for his school, I wouldn’t have learnt the rudiments of technique, without which my current life as a pianist would be inconceivable. I have a family, I teach, I play concerts… I can’t spend as much time practising as I used to. It no longer takes me a long time to rehearse the technical details of a particular piece, and I have my training to thank for that.

What advice do you pass on to your own students, given the sheer numbers of concert pianists around today?

I don’t like the way they all want to be “star pianists” nowadays. To get to be a star, you need more than talent and discipline; more than anything else you need luck. You can’t tell in advance who’ll eventually make it. Which means you have to find your own niche. I tell my students that the most important thing is to love what you do. If your attitude is “I didn’t win that competition. What a waste of time it was.”, then you should be in another line of work. Our profession is hard and very special, not one that we take up because of the profit to be had. The great thing about it is that it’s a way of expressing ourselves and helping us to develop – as musicians and people.

You can often be found playing the major piano concertos. They’re part of your bread and butter. Is it true that you still have favourites?

Playing the big piano concertos is a little like playing with your own children: they’re very different characters but you love them all equally. I have a special thing going with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2: it was what I played when I won the 2007 Reine Elisabeth Competition in Brussels and it basically kick-started my career – although I don’t actually like that word. I love performing it because it evokes so many memories of those times. As a rule, I only play works in which I feel I have something to say. Sometimes you have to start practising a piece before you’ve fully understood it; the understanding comes in the course of rehearsals.

You are all set to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on 14th January with the RSB. What does the work mean to you?

I’ve only been playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 for a few months, which may appear a bit odd for a Russian pianist. I’ve performed the Paganini Variations and his Piano Concerto No. 2 many times since the age of 14, the No. 2 in November 2016 with the RSB, for instance. It was ages before I could bring myself to try the No. 3, even though I’d always wanted to tackle it. It requires a virtuoso performance – 55,000 notes, according to the internet (laughs). At 45 minutes it’s very long and one of the most technically difficult piano concertos out there. The challenge is to put all the technical difficulty out of your mind and just play the notes, just get the music across.

You’re often back at the RSB as a soloist. How would you characterise your musical relationship with the RSB?

I love performing at the RSB! The first time we played together was in Colmar in 2009. We did Mozart’s Concerto in D minor, with Marek Janowski conducting, who I work very well with. And I now know a lot of the musicians, too. They all support me, and I feel very good, very comfortable with them. It’s a wonderful feeling! I love getting invited back.

An obligatory question for the adoptive Hamburger: what things about Berlin do you like?

I’ve often wished I live in Berlin. The city makes me nostalgic for the time I spent in the Soviet Union (laughs). I mean that in a good way. I love the Berlin air. People are really relaxed. You’re not aware of not having been born in Germany; you’re just one piece in the whole jigsaw. My favourite place is the Gallery of Old Masters near the Philharmonie. I know a lot of the pictures and keep going back. You come out a different person. In Hamburg I love the peace and quiet, the patches of greenery and the fact that you don’t have to travel far to get to them. I even find the U-Bahn relaxing!

Interview: Annette Zerpner