Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Returning to Brahms: pianist Anna Tsybuleva won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2015 with Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 and returned to the work for her debut concerto disc

Anna Tysbuleva (Photo Vera Greiner)
Anna Tysbuleva (Photo Vera Greiner)

The Russian pianist Anna Tsybuleva won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2015 with her performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 and she has now recorded the work, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and conductor Ruth Reinhardt, for her debut concerto recording on Signum Classics (released 28 May 2021), pairing the concerto with a sequence of Brahms' solo piano works. Earlier last month Anna was at her home in the Caucasus (at one point she showed me the wonderful view from the house), where I caught up with her by Zoom to talk about Brahms, the advantages and disadvantages of competitions, the transformative effect of performing in her first competition at the age of seven and more.

The Brahms concerto is a very special work for Anna, she first met it at school 12 to 15 years ago when she heard Emil Gilels' recording. She was amazed by it, and had a very clear wish to play the work but realised that she needed time to prepare for it, to grow up and to collect life experiences. The year before the Leeds competition she had returned to the concerto and felt ready for it, and the natural beauty of her home in the Caucasus (which she calls an inspiring place) recalled for her Brahms' love of nature. The final of the Leeds competition was the first time that she had played it in public, a brave step.

Afterwards, she wanted to play the concerto again and again, and given the possibility of a concerto recording, the work was her first choice. When I ask whether she plays it differently now to the way she did in 2015, she says she does and will do so in the future, commenting that music is like a river and we cannot play it the same way every day.


When she was a graduate at the Moscow Conservatory she did research into the concerto as part of her diploma work and saw the manuscript in the Hamburg library which includes Brahms' pencil marks. She feels that she has lived with Brahms' composing of the work, and it helps to immerse the soul in a piece. She sees the concerto as reflecting Brahms' approach to composing with its symphonic structure, and the work encompasses a wonderful arc of life in it.

Yet the piece's lyrical moments have a lot of the features of Brahms' chamber music, and it was for this reason that she included some of Brahms' solo piano music on the disc. She is fond of the solo piano music, works that show a more personal side to the composer's expression and the two aspects of Brahms' music work well together, we see his personality from different sides.

Anna Tsybuleva with Sir Mark Elder and the Halle after her performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2015 (Photo Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
Anna Tsybuleva with Sir Mark Elder and the Halle after her performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2015 (Photo Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)


Brahms' concerto helped Anna win the Leeds competition in 2015, though she had done well in competitions before this, and she has a clear view of the advantages and disadvantages of playing in competitions. Her concerto performances and her win at Leeds helped her see the world and allowed her to show her way of making music to the world. And thanks to her success, she is now able to play concerts and share her creativity with different countries. So naturally, she is very grateful for every moment in the competitions, they provided her with experience and she enjoyed it.

She found the atmosphere in Leeds was unique, it was so friendly, kind and warm; this was unusual, it was not the case in many other competitions. She went there not so much to compete as to play, and she was grateful for the atmosphere so she was able to think about the music, not the competition, and in fact, some of the jury members in Leeds commented that she seemed so calm and free in her performance that it was possible to forget she was in a competition. But winning, though tremendous, was just a step as it provided her with the opportunity to go and play in other places.

That said, she comments that younger musicians today are under an unfortunate amount of pressure as they live in a very competitive age. Whilst they are studying, there is competitive pressure in such things as exams which is stressful, and young musicians have to live in an atmosphere that is not kind. She feels that in Russia the atmosphere is very competitive and she sees this as destructive. She wishes that students were able to enjoy the process of musicianship and think about the composer, rather than worrying about being faster or louder. But generally, she still feels that competitions are a great opportunity for people like her, you just apply and you go abroad and play and hopefully simply think about the music.

In Leeds, there were the painful moments when the results of the first round were announced. There was a large crowd of competitors, yet only 24 could go forward and the rest would have to 'go on a different bus'. This sort of failure can destroy your wish to be creative, and you need to be prepared for the mental pressure of not being chosen to go to the next round. You have to know that it is just a step, there will be another competition and you might win that. After all, it is not a science, competition is not a sport and even jury members argue about who is best.

Performers need to be ready for this kind of stress, and they need to find their own motivation, then nobody can destroy you. After one of her debut concerts, there were some reviews that she describes as 'not kind'. She cried for two weeks, she couldn't believe that people were not able to hear what she played. After this she did a huge amount of work on herself, vowing that she would continue working in her own way and would not look to the side. And she returns to her earlier comment about it not being an exact science, no-one knows what is best in the arts. As an illustration of this, she mentions the contemporary arguments between supporters of Brahms and Wagner, yet here we had two great composers each going their own way.

And for the future? She loves the Austro-German composers, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, and to these, she adds CPE Bach whose music she plays a lot. So we can expect more of these composers, but she is also working on French music and Baroque music, from Rameau to Debussy, and she will be performing Faure next season.

She also plans a return to Russian repertoire. In her early career, she chose a rather unexpected path for a Russian pianist and did not play Russian composers a lot, but their time will come. Five years ago she wasn't playing Russian music and she feels that she needed to grow up, to understand all the details of the music and she is now working on Rachmaninov's pieces. She comments that 'everyone plays the concertos!'. For her, the Paganini Variations provided a way to connect with Rachmaninov, and that was her first real meeting with one of his concertos and she hopes to play one soon.

But she is careful of this music; it is so beautiful and makes such a big impression by itself. Yet there are so many important details in Rachmaninov's scores, even in the orchestral parts and she likes to go deep into the scores which takes time. These are not works to perform after a single rehearsal, and they are not the sort of work where you should simply put down the pedal and play loudly! Scriabin on the other hand is really far from her, like the moon. She describes herself as looking at him through a telescope and she needs to find a way to the composer.

Anna started playing the piano when she was five or six, being taught by her mother. But her mother's approach was very strict; Anna had to practice every day and was not able to see friends. So when she was six or seven she packed her bag and left! But you can easily get lost in the mountains around her home in the Caucasus, and so after three hours, she decided to return. The 1990s in Russia were crazy times, the family sometimes had no money for food and foraged for mushrooms from the forest.

Somehow her mother knew about a competition in Sicily (this was before the ubiquity of the internet) and decided that Anna (who was around seven) needed to compete. Anna's mother did everything, including borrowing money from the bank and Anna won second prize. As a result, she saw what music could do, and she found this very inspiring. And not just music, there was the architecture and more, all making a strong impression on the seven-year-old. She saw lots of opportunities.

When I ask about piano heroes and heroines, top of the list come her teachers, all of them. She adds that it wasn't easy all the time, and it was mostly hard; the system of Russian music education is strict with a lot of stress and pressure but you carry on despite the painful moments. One teacher she mentions is her professor in Moscow, Lyudmila Roschina with whom Anna studied from the age of 13 to post-graduate level. Another is Claudio Martínez-Mehner with whom Anna studied for two years in Basel, and she adds that Basel changed her life. She saw such a different approach to music; all she wanted could be done in an easier, more pleasant way. She found freedom in Basel.

The pianists she listened to include Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Vladimir Sofronitski, whom she calls amazing Russians, what they could do! She participated in a masterclass given by Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados and he both amazed and touched her, both his musicality and his explanations. More recent pianists she admires include Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida and Zoltan Kocsis.

She has lots of plans, but whether any will come to fruition it is difficult to say in the present climate. She hopes to be able to come to the UK in October, and there are ideas for concerts in China, Germany and Paris.

Anna Tsybuleva (Photo Emil Matveev)
Anna Tsybuleva (Photo Emil Matveev)


During lockdown, she has spent most of the time in the mountains of the Caucasus with her husband and daughter (who is 18 months old). Thankfully they were allowed to go out (there is plenty of space and the village only has 500 inhabitants), so she is glad they were there. She has been preparing repertoire for future concerts, but also playing for her own interest, simply enjoying playing the piano.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No.2, Capriccio in F sharp minor, Op.76 No.1, Intermezzo in E flat major, Op.117 No.1, Capriccio in B minor, Op.76 No.2, Intermezzo in A major, Op.118 No.2, Capriccio in C major, Op.76 No.8 - Anna Tsybuleva, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Ruth Reinhardt - Signum Records - Further information: http://smarturl.it/AnnaTsybulevaBrahms



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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I am awaiting my CD to hear the Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto!

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