Zlata Chochieva interview: ‘Most of what I can do on the piano I learnt from Pletnev’

Tim Parry
Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Russian pianist Zlata Chochieva has quietly been building a hugely impressive discography. Tim Parry talks to her about her new album, her influences and her studies with Mikhail Pletnev

Warmth and modesty: Zlata Chochieva’s personality shines through in both her playing and her conversation (photo: Uwe Arens)
Warmth and modesty: Zlata Chochieva’s personality shines through in both her playing and her conversation (photo: Uwe Arens)

Zlata Chochieva first came to my attention with her recording of Chopin’s Études, issued by Piano Classics in 2014. To be precise, it was Jeremy Nicholas’s review in Gramophone, in February 2015, that alerted me to this recording and to this pianist. ‘One of the most consistently inspired, masterfully executed and beautiful-sounding versions I can recall,’ was his verdict. I hurried to have a listen. To be sure, this is not only great piano-playing but, more importantly, great music-making, and Chopin’s pioneering works emerge freshly minted, imaginatively presented yet unimpeded by an inflated sense of ego. It has personality, but this is filtered through the music rather than imposed on it.

This was in fact Chochieva’s second recording, so naturally I caught up with the first – Rachmaninov’s still underappreciated First Sonata and ‘Chopin’ Variations, also on Piano Classics. This, and her subsequent account of Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux, reinforced the impression of a pianist with a colossal technique that was often kept in reserve and utilised with self-effacement bordering on understatement. After a gap, her next recording appeared in 2021 on Accentus, an album of transcriptions by Liszt, Rachmaninov and Ignaz Friedman called ‘(re)creations’, recorded under pandemic-imposed restrictions in September 2020. This, for me, is the highlight so far of an outstanding and steadily growing body of work on record. It led to a contract with the French label Naïve. The first recording of this new partnership, a programme of Mozart and Scriabin, came out last year, and the second, ‘Im Freien’, is issued this month.


Chochieva’s intense musical training has prepared her for a range of pianistic challenges (photo: Uwe Arens)

Chochieva’s humility comes through in conversation. There are filmed masterclasses on YouTube that show her warmth being matched by her modesty, and these attributes shine brightly when talking over Zoom from her Berlin home. She is genuinely thrilled by the interest shown in her work. Her new album contains an unusual combination of repertoire, with two major cycles – Schumann’s Waldszenen and Ravel’s Miroirs – supplemented by two Liszt études (‘Feux follets’ and ‘Chasse-neige’), a Felix Draeseke obscurity (Petite histoire, Op 9), Adolf Schulz-Evler’s wonderfully pianistic take on Johann Strauss’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, and a movement from Bartók’s Out of Doors (the ‘Im Freien’ of the album’s title; she plays the fourth piece, the shimmeringly atmospheric ‘The Night’s Music’). How did this eclectic programme come about?

‘I was not initially planning a double album,’ Chochieva begins. ‘I wanted to create a programme that would reflect my strong connection with nature. I felt this connection ever more during the pandemic, when I couldn’t meet people and everything was cancelled. I was feeling a bit lonely, and I realised that nature is what inspires me the most; this is what energises and enriches me. I was walking a lot, and taking lots of photographs, which is my hobby. And then I had the idea to learn the cycle that has always been one of my favourite works – Ravel’s Miroirs. It’s such a special masterpiece. I was taken by Ravel’s quote from Shakespeare: “the eye sees not itself, / But by reflection, by some other things”. In other words, we can’t fully understand ourselves without a view from outside, without a mirror. And this mirror is nature. I found this idea so beautiful, and I started thinking about a programme that would reflect it.’

The five pieces of Miroirs paint such specific and evocative images that the connection with nature is clear. Of course, the same can be said of Schumann’s Waldszenen. ‘I’d played Waldszenen before, but a long time ago,’ says Chochieva. ‘These two cycles are the core of the programme, and it feels to me that Waldszenen was a model for Ravel. The structure is a little bit similar. Ravel doesn’t end the cycle with “Alborada”, which is very brilliant, but the last piece makes a very different kind of conclusion. This is also what happens with Waldszenen, but of course the two composers realise it differently.’


‘I’m quite old‑fashioned’: Zlata Chochieva is inspired by great pianists of past eras

Despite the perceived connection, these works occupy very different pianistic worlds. The technical demands of the Ravel – especially in the penultimate piece, ‘Alborada del gracioso’, with its perilous repeated notes and dancing exuberance – are obvious. Such superfine and meticulous piano-writing led Michelangeli to comment famously that no piano is good enough for Ravel, yet for Chochieva the Schumann is every bit as difficult. ‘Waldszenen is so fragile,’ she says. ‘The textures are so pure, and any little detail that doesn’t fit the picture can just ruin the whole thing. This is super tricky. The fewer notes, the more difficult it is. The Ravel is an explosion of a pianistic world – you can say it’s virtuoso, but that doesn’t really tell you anything.’

You can say the same of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante. The virtuoso element is encapsulated in the title, but this music is more about character than virtuosity. Just as Schumann ends Waldszenen with a lyrical farewell and Ravel follows ‘Alborada’ with the gently evocative ‘La vallée des cloches’, so Liszt concludes his cycle with the bleakly picturesque ‘Chasse-neige’, where a snowstorm leaves behind a smothered landscape, the cycle’s earlier heroic energy replaced by irrevocable desolation. ‘Chasse-neige’ teems with difficulties – not least its sustained tremolos – but the challenges are as much musical as technical. To some extent, the same applies to the other Liszt étude in Chochieva’s programme, ‘Feux follets’, although this lies so far beyond the reach of the average piano enthusiast that it has a particularly notorious reputation. The right hand’s double notes and the left hand’s leaps are enough to put off many an ambitious amateur, before one can even consider interpretative options.

Chochieva is only too aware of the reputation of these pieces. ‘Many people don’t look beyond the bravura and the difficulties,’ she begins. ‘Yes, “Chasse-neige” is challenging, but that’s my problem. With works that are seen as super-virtuosic – it’s the same with the Chopin Études – it is always a challenge to make the audience see them as musical masterpieces. The technique serves the music. These are of course very challenging, technically, but for me the challenge is to get beyond this. I don’t want my audience to hear the technical difficulties; I want them to see the images that Liszt had in mind. It is more difficult to play “Feux follets” softly and musically – if you get bogged down thinking about the double notes you can easily forget that this piece is all about its distinctive sound and character.’


Zlata Chochieva: ‘Most of what I can do on the piano I learnt from Pletnev’ (photo: Uwe Arens)

While ‘Feux follets’ and ‘Chasse-neige’ fit the theme of nature perfectly, Chochieva knows that these pieces are often presented as calling cards by younger pianists – it is for this reason that they crop up so often in competitions. ‘Nowadays it feels like if you put a work like this in your programme it means that you are ambitious or you want to prove something – that you too can play these pieces – but this was not my thought at all,’ she says. There are famous recordings of ‘Feux follets’ where speed is prioritised over character – although Liszt marks it Allegretto, and the 2/4 time signature can equally be read as four quaver beats to each bar rather than two crotchets. Chochieva is no slouch, but true to her word hers is a performance all about character – whimsy, half-lights and a variety of articulation – with her tempo chosen for vividness rather than velocity.

For the piano aficionado, another work on the programme stands out: Shulz-Evler’s arrangement of Strauss’s waltz On the Beautiful Blue Danube. It fits with the general theme of nature, but I suspect that Chochieva simply revels in its luxuriant pianism. ‘This is a new friend,’ she tells me with a smile. ‘I learnt it for the album. I have some background in playing transcriptions and this one is beautiful. It’s a wonderful chance to be able to play Strauss’s music on the piano. I always find it fascinating to play orchestral or operatic favourites on the piano because you feel a different perspective in the music.’ And, presumably, you can do subtle things with rubato that just aren’t possible with an orchestra? ‘Exactly. You can be very flexible, and why not?’

Anyone who knows this piece will have a favourite recording. I wonder which versions Chochieva was familiar with, and whether she allows herself to listen widely before learning a new work. ‘My working structure is not to listen to other recordings much at the beginning,’ she says. ‘I want to see a piece with my own personal perception, from my own view, so I don’t want other interactions; I want to be alone with the composer and the text and to be able to communicate on our own, without interference. Before I learnt this piece, I heard it probably only twice. I heard it played by Mikhail Pletnev, my former teacher, which was very interesting, and then I wanted to learn it and include it on this album. From that point I didn’t listen to other versions, preferring to keep in mind the orchestral version. Then, later, I allowed myself to listen to other recordings. By then they have less influence on me as my own interpretation of the piece is basically structured. This interpretation comes from my own very personal communication with the composer.’


History of playing transcriptions: Chochieva revels in playing orchestral music on the piano

I mention Josef Lhevinne’s famous (and cut) account from 1928. ‘It’s extraordinary,’ Chochieva agrees. ‘I am fascinated by this epoch, which remains a kind of model – I’m quite old-fashioned!’ It is heartening that so many younger pianists embrace this era of freedom and imagination, one that not so long ago might have been perceived as dated and vulgar. Listen, for example, to Rachmaninov’s highly personal way with rubato, not least in Chopin. Even if you admire it, you can’t copy it. ‘As an exercise when I was younger I would try, and it’s just impossible’, Chochieva says. ‘What impresses me most from these pianists is their sense of timing, which is incredible and so personal. For me great piano-playing is about sound and about a personal sense of timing. It is not that they allowed themselves to do anything they want – no, it’s a very natural flexibility, rooted in sense, as if the music is breathing.’

This brings us to a discussion of the pianists Chochieva grew up listening to, and to her musical training in Moscow. Sofronitsky was a personal favourite, and Chochieva talks appreciatively of his flexibility of pulse and ability to float a singing line. ‘When I was a child I heard a lot of Sofronitsky and Rachmaninov, and also Glenn Gould from another epoch. Gould was very popular in Russia – many people were fanatical about his playing. I was also fascinated by Gulda and – you will be surprised – Gieseking. I can’t tell you why exactly, but I loved him, and I had many recordings. And of course Horowitz, too, was an important model. He had a unique sense of timing and an extraordinary sound.’ Horowitz believed in the importance of learning from great singers, especially when it comes to phrasing, and Chochieva endorses this. ‘I have always been inspired by vocal music, and when confronted by a technical problem, a sense of timing can be hugely helpful in solving things and making the music sound natural and beautiful despite the technical issues.’

Beyond these pianistic titans of the last century, two further names stand out as being of central importance to Chochieva’s musical upbringing: Michelangeli and Pletnev. Chochieva cites Michelangeli as one of the most important influences on her during the years before she studied with Pletnev, a love that became even richer over time. But the most crucial years for her development, from the age of 14, were spent studying with Pletnev, a debt she is happy to acknowledge. ‘The three years I spent studying with Pletnev were the most memorable and I must say that most of what I can do on the piano I learnt from him.’ Pletnev invited the 14-year-old Chochieva to play Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto with him and his orchestra for a televised concert – a huge break for the young pianist. ‘I was scared, of course, but when we had the first rehearsal he was so supportive, such a warm human being, which perhaps many people don’t expect me to say, but this is true. He remained this way for the whole period I knew him. He was always supportive. His goal was not to impose himself as a great pianist to be copied, or anything like that. In fact, he rarely played.’

This seems at odds with the stereotype of powerful Russian teachers and the struggles of talented students to escape their influence, but Chochieva experienced things quite differently. ‘Pletnev was so encouraging and wanted me to create my own world, to find my own voice,’ she begins. ‘This was incredible. I felt so free. I felt like this was the period when I had to become an artist. For me this meant being brave and transferring my ideas into my own sound world, and I was encouraged to do this. Pletnev would say: “I’m interested in your ideas. I don’t want you to copy anyone; I want you to be brave and impress or surprise me with your ideas, and then together we will think about how best to make them work, technically.” For me, this was the ideal teaching. A teacher who helps you to solve problems but wants you to find your own voice. He taught me so much about technique and sound – this was at a very high level, but he was still essentially teaching me how to play the piano, which you don’t expect while working with such a great pianist.’ She is referring to the nuts-and-bolts technical work that once a student reaches a certain level usually gives way to broader concerns, perhaps to a wider approach or general musicianship. Chochieva hasn’t forgotten this mentorship.

Falling into the orbit of such a powerful musical personality at an impressionable age could have inhibited Chochieva’s individuality, and she credits Pletnev for the fact that she was able to forge her own path. Lessons were intense, challenging and long. And not only about piano-playing but directed towards an all-round musicianship. Pletnev had just two students: Chochieva and Sergey Basukinsky, who later settled in London, where he now teaches. Chochieva describes extremely demanding but rewarding lessons: ‘These were long lessons of five hours or so. We would participate in discussions and we listened to a lot of records. We listened to different pianists, and we heard a lot from Horowitz and Michelangeli – these were always at the top. Pletnev would also set challenges. For example, he would say: “Do you know the Symphony No 4 of Tchaikovsky? Play the main themes of the second movement on the piano.” I was not always able to do this, but it was such a great motivation to learn the repertoire and know your way around things. This helped me a lot. He required a wide knowledge of the whole musical literature, not just piano music. This was a beautiful period and I was very lucky to be in such a small class, with only two students. He would also ask me to sight-read something I didn’t know like the Messiaen Préludes. Then he would ask us to play different scales in each hand, so for example playing G sharp minor in the left hand and F sharp major in the right hand at the same time. This is very good for coordination. He might also get us to play one piece in the left hand and a different piece in the right hand – for example, Chopin’s Étude Op 10 No 4 in the right hand, and then with the left some jazz or something else. This is really great for your brain and for making your hands independent.’

I can only shake my head and reflect on the relative mundanity of my own piano lessons. I’ve heard of pianists transposing the Chopin Études into different keys, so that playing them in the original key then seems relatively manageable, but this is another level of mental and physical gymnastics. As Chochieva says with characteristic understatement, by the time she went to the Moscow Conservatory at the end of her studies with Pletnev, she was well prepared.

The most obvious omission in Chochieva’s discography so far is a concerto recording, and it’s good news to hear that one is in the pipeline – early next year she will record Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It seems pleasingly typical of her that she is recording the Second Concerto rather than the overplayed First. This is a new work for Chochieva, so new that she’s not yet played it in public. The coupling is intriguing: Mozart’s G major Piano Concerto No 17, K453. Aside from sharing the same key, there are more general links between Tchaikovsky and Mozart, which, as Chochieva says with tact, would take up an entirely different conversation. By contrast with the Tchaikovsky, the Mozart is a work she has grown up playing: this was the very first concerto she performed with an orchestra, when she was seven or eight.

Now in her late 30s, Chochieva is one of the most refined and resourceful pianists around, and one of the most cultured – if she’s not performing, you’re likely to find her in the stalls of the opera house, or at an art gallery. Concert promoters, in the UK at least, have been slow on the uptake, and despite her recordings she doesn’t yet have the profile she deserves. With new talent emerging all the time, this doesn’t get any easier, and she’s not alone. But there are signs that at last this is changing, and it can only be a matter of time before her growing reputation builds a cumulative momentum that extends beyond her devoted band of admirers.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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