“I try not to have too many dreams”

Written by: Ying Chang

Valentina Igoshina’s story sounds like a fairy tale, in the telling as well as in the facts. Her international career started when she won the “Artur Rubinstein Memorial Competition” in Poland in 1993. This was followed by the “International Rachmaninov Competition” in Moscow in 1997. She is now twenty-three, she has a professional life of unbroken success; and she has the self-awareness, poise, charm and level-headedness of someone much older. I met her in the Chiswick flat she is staying ahead of her Queen Elizabeth Hall recital – I can hear Beethoven’s ’Les adieux’ sonata as I walk up the stairs.

“My mother was a music teacher, and when I was a baby I tried to imitate her. I put my dolls at the piano and I tried to teach them. To have something to teach them, I asked her ’What does this sign mean?’ and so on”. Very quickly, of course, Valentina’s mother realised her only daughter was showing musical talent. “She never thought I had to be a professional, but her attitude was that a child must have something to do – not just play in the streets, and if I was good at music…”.

When Valentina was eleven, a pianist came to perform in her hometown of Bryansk, and Valentina played at a Masterclass of Larissa Dedova, who is now at the University of Maryland. “She asked me if I would like to go and study in Moscow. She was a very beautiful, very charming woman. Of course I said yes. I never thought it would change my life. It was hard to live in Moscow and I wanted to come back, but my mother said ’If you return, don’t tell me after one month you want to go back to Moscow. Just decide once’”. And so she stayed. (Bryansk is six hours away by train towards the south-west.)

It was a good environment for developing her abilities. “It was competitive, but in a good way. There is a period in one’s life, this teenager’s time when your life is driven by this ambition. Now I take a different view. Everyone plays well; everyone has something personal to say. You can’t play ’faster’ than someone else”. I ask her whom she admires from “everyone”. The first name she comes up with is Grigory Sokolov. “He is very individual, very clever, and he has such energy; when you listen you are … hypnotised”. She also admires Michelangeli, Pogorelich and Argerich.

When I comment on Valentina’s intellectual and emotional maturity, she attributes it to having to tour alone from an early age. “I started travelling at fifteen. At first I didn’t speak any ’normal’ English. It wasn’t easy for me to get a taxi, change trains … and everyone looked at me as if I was a baby. It’s easier now”. At nineteen, after the Rachmaninov competition, she met Tony Palmer. “He just came backstage and asked me if I would do some Rachmaninov Preludes for his next film, [“The Harvest of Sorrow”], and I said ’I would like to but I don’t know how I can mange it’”. She was soon found an agent (Ingpen and Williams) and a full international career has followed. “These people [Larissa Dedova, Tony Palmer and her agent David Sigall] are the ones who changed my life.”

“Yes, I am grateful,” she says of her story. “When I looked at the list of names [for the current Harrods season of piano recitals] … Berezovsky, Pletnev, Pollini, Sokolov…”. The sentence tails off; she is lost for words. “I’m not lucky in the sense that some people just have everything fall into their hands,” she muses. “I’m not lucky if I buy a lottery ticket. I have to want something very much, and work hard to get it.”

The programme for her recent QEH recital was chosen carefully. ’Les adieux’ is one of four Beethoven sonatas that strike her as “pictorial”. (The others are the ’Moonlight’, ’Waldstein’ and ’Appassionata’.) “You can see them”. And these, she believes, are more appropriate for her to perform now. When I mention Beethoven’s ’late’ sonatas, she says: “There is so much in them, no-one will ever agree with your interpretation. You have to be so mature, so sure, [to perform them]”. She plays the later edition of Schumann’s Kreisleriana but without the cut in the second number, which she thinks was not made for any good artistic reason. “I don’t see the sense of it. It’s like Rachmaninov writing ’I played the Corelli Variations today. The public was not concentrating, so I missed some out’”. Chopin’s 24 Preludes complete her London recital, music that is a staple of her repertoire.”

“I am lucky maybe. I like orchestras and orchestras seem to like me,” she tells me mentioning that she has no particular favourites. I get the same response when I ask about repertoire – and favourite Chopin in particular. “Whatever I am playing at that moment”. Valentina’s work includes a small amount of teaching – not so much as to risk being frustrated by pupils who cannot absorb what she has to tell them, and some chamber music, mostly with violin. “But to look at the score draws attention from the music. I have the score there, but when I give chamber concerts I am actually playing from memory”. She speaks affectionately of the film work for Chopin and Rachmaninov films, of the teamwork involved, the sense of recording, but with a camera, and she would be happy to do more. As for CDs, so far there is one of Chopin’s Preludes and Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, on the Italian label, “Real Sound”.

And Valentina’s mother? She remains a strong influence. “I still listen to her advice. She is a very good musician and when she says something, it’s the truth. I think she is a very good mother, because she tells me all my [musical] faults. She rings me up and says – ’It seems to me that you are not practising enough.’”

Occasionally, just occasionally, Valentina betrays that the concert artist’s life has its traditional stresses and loneliness.“I don’t like eating alone … I don’t miss Moscow when I’m away, but I miss my sofa, my piano, my flat”. She tells me too of how touring has taught her to become a much more open and adaptable person. It has certainly given her a ready charm … just occasionally I wonder how much this ingenuousness might be a generous public face, the artist putting the interviewer at his ease.

Underneath the poised artist, I saw someone who has her feet very much on the ground and is unafraid to be simple. “I try not to have too many dreams,” she says when I ask her about her career hopes. “Just so long as I have concerts”. Her shopping tastes are not clothes or accessories – “You have to try them on – it takes a lot of time”. But she still collects the soft toys and dolls with which this fairy tale began. “Sometimes, you have to do these baby things”. I hazard that she would be an ideal interpreter of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. “I don’t play it yet, but yes, I am thinking about it”.

I have disturbed her practice for too long. I leave unbearably curious as to what I shall be hearing at her recital.

  • Click here to read Ying Chang’s thoughts on Valentina’s London recital

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