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“In Music I’m a Lot More Courageous”

An Interview with Anna Zassimova

An Authority on Catoire

I’m sitting in the middle of sugary-charming Salzburg, running from concert to concert, with scarcely time to change shirts between. Christian Thielemann conducts Die Frau ohne Schatten left of the Salzach river. On its right a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s string quartets with Mandelring String Quartet takes place in the Mozarteum. The Vienna Philharmonic here (Stravinsky-Ravel-Liszt with Lang Lang and Mariss Jansons), Kent Nagano in Karl Amadeus Hartmann there, and Janáček’s Věc Makropulos with Esa-Pekka Salonen as the after-dinner treat. Twenty-some days, thirty-three concerts, and enough cultural highlights to last for the year. (Just in case I should incur a drought.)

When I finally get to my tiny hotel room—a second home during August—I have a book under my pillow. Not just to prop up the flimsy pillow, but also because I am supposed to read the academic study of the life, works, and letters of the composer Georgy Lvovich Catoire. Lacking time to get as much reading done as I’d like (or should), I’m hoping on osmosis to do the trick.
The book—basically her dissertation in published form—is written by Muscovite Anna Zassimova, not foremost a Catoire expert (she is a pianist), but the foremost Catoire expert of her generation. It’s the only achievement where—in conversation—a touch of pride, or at least satisfaction, comes into her manner. But in all honesty, “George Catoire – His Music, Life, and Charisma” (publ. Ernst Kuhn, Berlin) is not a good read. That’s partly due to the amateurish layout, partly due to content. Proper typesetting is nonexistent, fonts constantly change in size (usually too small to read without squinting), chapters are arranged like in the dissertation on which the book is based (i.e. “ = Instances that mention Catoire in volume three of Taneyev’s diaries”). It’s a collection of facts and references, letters and anecdotes—impressively comprehensive and meticulous, and indispensable raw material for anyone interested in writing a biography or lengthy article on the subject… but it’s not a biography in any conventional sense. (Not that it was meant to be, as I'm reminded when the subject is brought up at a later point.)

Recordings, Chopin, and Érard

After prematurely putting the tome back on the shelf, I move on to what Mlle. Zassimova has to say about Catoire by her other means: those of pianism. One opportunity presents itself in form of a disc of Catoire’s music for piano and violin (cpo), where she unintentionally steals the show from the perfectly competent violinist Laurent Albrecht Breuninger with her sensitive, urging performances. Occasionally she matches Breuninger’s stridency, the latter of which rather grew on me after initial skepticism, but for the most part she counters with warmth and muscular delicacy. Another opportunity is “Forgotten Melodies”. It’s a compilation of melodic miniatures by Catoire  as well as Medtner, Scriabin, and Roslavets (Antes Edition)—the hitherto most interesting recording I have heard of her, despite my usual, increasingly old-fashioned reservations about dealing with more than one composer per CD.

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G.Catoire, Works for Violin & Piano,
L.A.Breuninger, Anna Zassimova

available at Amazon
Catoire, Scriabin, Roslavets, Medtner, Forgotten Melodies,
Anna Zassimova

Mlle. Zassimova’s recent foray into Chopin brought her very favorable responses—mostly from local German and specialist publications like Piano News. On the very nearly professional record label Antes Edition she re-issued an earlier effort on a Steinway with late works of Chopin, a period which she suggests is as distinct for Chopin as Beethoven’s late period was for that composer. Salvaged from an amateurish but well recorded vanity project (the recording’s financier’s vanity, not Mlle. Zassimov’s; she is, if anything, under-endowed in the vanity department), it shows a depth and appreciation that isn’t the standard with early recording efforts of young pianists. It is bested by a newer effort of a mixed program that centers around 12 Mazurkas—all performed on a restored 1850s Érard: Beautifully played, with lots of color, but surprisingly grand-piano-ish sounding for a mid-19th century instrument. Are our ears already so used to hearing Chopin performed on period instruments that it sounds ‘normal’ to us? I check with recent releases from Edna Stern (on a 1842 Pleyel, naïve) and Daniel Grimwood (on a 1851 Érard, sfz music) and no, they sound completely different; more distinct overtones, quicker decay, thinner but also more responsive.

Going back to Zassimova’s recording, it sounds like recorded on an early 20th century grand piano… perhaps a good compromise for those who like additional color away from the homogenized Steinway mono-culture of today, but are hesitant to fully embrace the fortepiano’s less reassuring, less plush qualities. In Fanfare Magazine 35:2 (caveat emptor) Dave Saemann wrote an—admittedly hollow-sounding—paean to Zassimova about those CDs, that sees her belonging among the select few pianists that deserve real fame: he finds her Chopin collection on the Érard “one of the most successful presentations of Chopin on a period instrument that I know,” likening it to two equally obscure but presumably beautiful period instrument Chopin recitals, Nelson Goerner’s Ballades (Fryderyk Chopin Institute) and Sheila Arnold’s Preludes (CAvi-Music). Is the recent Érard a trend seen in other pianists ‘fleeing’ the mainstream into something slightly more unique? “No,” she muses… “I don’t think I would give up the modern grand piano. Why would I? But when the opportunity presents itself, with a nice instrument and the right repertoire, I do like using an older piano.” Older, but still modern instruments, too: the touch of real ivory on an early 20th century Steinway for example. Maybe she will get to play a particular 1876 Bechstein for an upcoming Brahms project. “But I’m not changing tracks or think of myself as a ‘period instrument’ pianist. Not at all.” Only that particular Érard she’d take every chance playing on: “It’s so full of opportunity. And the keys are just a little narrower, the black keys feel neater.” Says it and absent-mindedly wiggles her small fingers.

White Sausages and Almost-Beer

Anna Zassimova lives in Karlsruhe now, where she stranded after a string of accidents, happenstances, fortuities, and serendipities. We manage to find time to meet in Munich where I try to combine the sometimes tedious necessity of interviewing someone with the relaxed atmosphere and inherent pleasure of a Bavarian white sausage breakfast to which the southern German habitually takes at eleven in the morning. The person I meet fits one of the female Russian archetypes almost to the T. Slightly apologetic, demure, even mousy. Pretty, but with a generous dash of gray. So soft-spoken you sometimes can’t catch what she says at all. Prone to laughter that seems split between nervous and innocent-childish. It would be folly though, in general and specifically as regards Mlle. Zassimova, to underestimate the latent determination or assume weakness, or worse, lack of spirit when it comes to the really important stuff… It’s just that elsewhere there reigns a coating of timidity.

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F.Chopin, Mazurkas et al.l,
Anna Zassimova (1850 Érard)

It shows when it comes to ordering our drinks. Custom simply and strictly demands a Weissbier to go with those fluffy white sausages that taste infinitely more appealing than the concept reads on paper. No convincing Mlle. Zassimova regarding the sausages is necessary; she’s had the dish before and approves. But beer at a quarter to eleven in the morning? She wavers, quietly contemplates—then opts for an Apfelschorle, the apple juice spritzer that is the Germans’ non alcoholic drink of choice. I have no such compunctions, go with tradition’s demand, and earn an amusedly reproving, slightly wistful look.

In conversation, I get a much more flavorful recount of her life than the short version on her trilingual website ( can provide. The latter, by the way, has all the slapdash signs of an artist ambitiously trying to convey her passions, and more-so all the signs of a slick (or even just professional) marketing machine lacking. The experience is in equal parts endearing and frustrating.

Her circuitous way to pianism started with the Great-Grandfather’s grand piano at home, a Diederichs (from one of the pioneering piano builders that started the earliest piano factory in St. Petersburg in 1810) without which, she says, she’d never have become a musician. She turned out to be obviously musical and was accepted at the Russian Academy of Music “Gnessin”. At first to play the violin, but because her parents couldn’t find a 1/16th violin for her and her tiny hands to practice on, the family gave up on that idea and started her on the piano instead, mid-semester. Even that choice was taken merely because her mother played piano already and it was assumed that therefore little Anna would be able to pick it up, too. The hands, everyone figured, would grow eventually. They probably did, but not much. Her delicate fingers and small palms are one of the first things one notices; they make Angela Hewitt’s mitts look like paws in comparison. Does that bother her or limit her playing? “Not really,” she shrugs her shoulders a little. “I wouldn’t play some crazy Rhapsody by Liszt; others can do that better than I. And sometimes I have to stagger a chord where I’d rather play it together, but that’s no great limitation.” Liszt, in any case, doesn’t seem to jazz her bell; delicate and sensuous works are more her thing.

Accidental Career

At twelve she came into painting, teaching herself and achieving an estimable amateur proficiency that has been commented on favorably—but something she never pursued with the degree she followed music… even if she didn’t follow a clear-cut pianist-career plan. When she was no longer challenged by the lessons her old teacher could provide, she stayed with her anyway, out of a sense of loyalty because every other talented student of that teacher jumped ship at the first opportunity. She didn’t inquire about the “New Names” foundation that has helped the careers of fellow pianists like Denis Matsuev, Alexander Kobrin, or Konstantin Lifschitz. “I wasn’t ever told to do anything in that direction, and was too dumb to do anything myself.” Then she erred on the other side of caution by entering the Warsaw Chopin Competition at 18, “five years too early”, against the explicit wishes of my teacher Vladimir Tropp. But so she went about it “completely unprofessionally, unprepared for the challenges of a competition and distractions of a foreign city, and out in the first round after a bungled set of Études.” All the same, after graduation she got a call from a professor in Hanover with the offer to go to Germany for a year—instead of taking a comfortable teaching position offered to her in Moscow. Without speaking much of the language or knowing exactly where to go, she decided to take the plunge, especially as she had the choice between several institutions.

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F.Chopin, Late Works,
Anna Zassimova

A little like the opening of “Coming to America”—roll the globe, close your eyes, and point the finger—she choose her place of study by looking at a map of Germany where she had the choice of Karlsruhe, Freiburg, Frankfurt, Hannover, and Bremen. She ruled out the latter two on account of it being too cold there. She might be from Moscow (where the annual mean temperature is just above 40°F) but doesn’t look like she is well isolated against the cold. She picked Karlsruhe in the end, to study chamber music initially and to do work on her soloists’ skill on the side. She eventually extended the German stay; and after two weeks at Oberlin College (where she had received a two year scholarship) she went back to Germany. Partly because she had been accepted into a PhD program there, partly because she didn’t like the mothering campus atmosphere compared to the independence at the Karlsruhe conservatory. During that time she had to play any and every gig she could get, Christmas parties included, and taught forty students, just to stay afloat. She got her first taste of contemporary music—Nono, Stockhausen, and fellow Karlsruhe-citizen Wolfgang Rihm who speaks well of Zassimova as a pianist and musician.

I find it intriguing how musicians tackle new music, not knowing at first whether it is a good work or even how it might or should sound… and so prod her about new music. Her approach is simple and compelling: “Do it precisely. Try to love it and enthrall others with it. Even lesser music can be effective, given honest and enough energy. Get an idea for the internal relationships and its form, take to the process-as-such, and slowly develop it like a picture during photographic processing.” Here, as in the standard repertoire, her principle aim is fidelity to the text. If people later come up to her and claim to have “heard it all anew” then that’s wonderful she says, but—she crinkles her nose and raises soft question marks with her eyebrows—also a little strange, because that would certainly not have been her goal. “The opposite, rather. Oh well…”

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J.Brahms, Clarinet Sonatas & Fantasies op.116,
K.Rybakov, Anna Zassimova (1876 Bechstein)

With the language of photo-processing, her history of painting, and the fondness for composers like Scriabin, the topic of synesthesia crops up. Yes, she ‘supposes’, she is synesthetically inclined. Every tone, every chord has colors or complexes of colors in different combinations. But it’s not as though she’d look at the table cloth—she points at a red checkered spot not covered by pretzels, sausage pot, and beer glass—and suddenly conceived of lunch as coming in A-major. Yes, she likes Messiaen, whom she hadn’t heard much before coming to Germany. Playing him, she prattles on amiably, there’s a sense of colors in those Quatre études de rhythme, or the Quartet for the End of Times. These harmonies can really embrace you. Then again, you can find that in Chopin, too, if you look in the right places. You can feel the stained glass in small partitions of large windows, like in a cathedral. And she enjoys these colors. But that’s not why she loves him, she softly-determined shakes her head. “Why, I also love Bach, and no synesthesia there…”

We talk a little about loving Haydn (too little being played in recitals), Sokolov (“that honest wrestling with notes – expressive – Michelangelo”) and Marc André Hamelin (“the wisdom and ease of perfection – harmonic – Rafael”), why she’d never bother with the César Franck sonata (“too little to discover in it when compared to Beethoven trios or Debussy”), Mozart (“I do love him. I think I’m good at that, actually”), her dream of doing a whole evening of just Bach, ideas on Rameau (“not bone-breaking stuff; you wouldn’t be tempted to tear off your shirt while playing it, but such delicacies and such depth!”), and upcoming Taneyev projects (complete chamber music, on the cpo label).

A few days later she thinks she might have come across as too passive and writes me. “I don’t want you to think that my life has only been strange coincidences and ill-conceived, impetuous ideas. Well, maybe in many ways it was that. But even if I’m often unsure in life and not sure what I should do or what choice to make next—when I play, it’s a different thing altogether. Maybe I succeed only in music in this, but when I have a work under my fingers, I know pretty quickly how I want it and what I want it to become. In music I’m a lot more courageous. Maybe because it’s that I feel that it isn’t me who wants it this or that way, but that I sense a work’s logic so strongly (or am I only imagining that?) that it simply cannot be done any other way; that this logic commands me to do it this one way, lest I be unfaithful to it. I suppose that if I didn’t think that I could play music in a certain particular, honest way, I wouldn’t bother being a pianist… after all, there are already so many of us.”

That impression was not lost on me. Not on CD, nor in person. Determination—I remember well from occasionally looking over my fork—gleams through the eyes from underneath the slightly bowed head.