Interview: How Yeritsyan merges her three musical cultures

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 22.12.2015

French-Armenian pianist Varduhi Yeritsyan has attracted international accolades from major critics for her vigorous interpretations of the ten Scriabin piano sonatas, a corpus that continues to intrigue pianophiles a hundred years after his death. She has studied and mastered the full range of styles encompassed in the sonatas, from Chopinesque derivatives to his atonal experiments.

Varduhi Yeritsyan as seen by Michael Johnson, the author.

Launching her new CD  “Scriabin Piano Sonatas” (Paraty), she enters a world of established virtuosos with some or all of the sonatas already in the market --  Ashkenazy, Hamelin, Laredo, Ogdon, Sofronitzky and others. She holds her own and more with this esteemed company.

A French import to Paris since the age of 20, Ms. Yeritsyan says she has adopted France as her home while remaining true to her tortured Armenian roots and her “Russian School” training. Her family suffered in the Armenian genocide 100 years ago and her career today pays homage to her country’s and her family’s loss.

She gained her credentials at the Paris Conservatory, completing post-graduate cycles in piano and chamber performance. Her new CD is reviewed here.

In a candid email conversation with me over the past two weeks, she reveals her attraction to Scriabin’s mystic journey and discusses her Russian-Armenian musical origins.

This year marks the centennial of Scriabin’s untimely death at 41.  What aspects of his music or his person drew you to him?

Scriabin’s development was surprising. He was both heir to a long Russian tradition that assimilated Chopin’s piano style and an adventurer who pushed musical language beyond the boundaries of tonality. He never settled down in a comfort zone or in a set of habits. He was a discoverer, a musician of the new, whether in harmonics or form. For all these reasons, Scriabin is present in my musical Pantheon.

Music lovers sometimes find Scriabin’s piano and orchestral writing, including parts of his sonatas, to be elusive. Do you find it so?

Scriabin’s music evolved constantly. Listen to his Sonata No. 1. It is somehow quite traditional. But the « real » Scriabin is one of obsessions, one who is able to merge harmonies, whose conceptualization is magical. In fact this is my way of seeing music in general, taking harmonic development as the most important aspect. Of course modernity can sometimes throw you off – but the mission of a composer is partly to disturb, to break habits.

How did you go about gaining your depth of understanding of Scriabin? He was such a mystical personage, controversial in his day.

Knowledge of a composer’s creative context is essential.  But I come from a Russian musical culture and I understand how the arts there alternated between periods of great conservatism and experimentalism. For me, the rapid changes are a natural part of how I see musical history. There is nothing shocking about this. Imagine the music of the 16th century or the Mozart pastiches of the 19th. And then along came Scriabin or Stravinsky who defined modernism. We have to accept the fact that Russian artistic evolution was not as linear as in was in Germany or France.

How has your personal culture been influenced by your Russian training?

Armenians live in a dual culture, and so for me Russian literature (Pushkin, Dostoevsky) and obviously music are like a second mother-tongue. The passion, the excesses, the expressiveness, the contrasts – all the Russian values have made me what I am today, both as a pianist and as a person.

In what ways can your playing be described as Russian School?

I was trained in very Russian principles, notably in matters of tone and posture. But the Armenian School adds a little exotic touch, perhaps more whimsical and fantasist than one finds in the Russian School. And then in France I have added to this base by devoting special attention to detail, to form and to rationality.  I suppose this makes me a synthetic pianist!

One of your interests is Prokofiev. Did you research him just as deeply before producing your CD of his piano works?

Prokofiev was part of my musical life before Scriabin. I grew up with him. I learned from him. His pedagogical output is especially rich, in the manner of Bartok or Bach. He composed great masterpieces for children without ever making esthetic concessions.  Later on, I played his mature works, notably the first sonatas, for which I have a very special and tender attraction.

Many young pianists are capable technically but superficial in their knowledge of a composer’s intentions.  Is heavy research part of your preparation for performing cycles of composers?

I am perhaps not best-placed to judge the pianists of my generation. However I think we are pulled in two dangerous directions: hyper-specialization which leads to poverty of repertoire, and extreme variety, which means superficiality.  We all have to find ways to avoid these two obstacles.  As for myself, I study a lot of repertoire constantly, and then decide to undertake a certain corpus so that I can extract the maximum from it.

Some Scriabinists see the Sonata No. 4 as male and female forces seeking union.  Opinion differs as to whether it is about love or about sex? How do you see it?

Scriabin’s music is so rich that it lends itself to a range of interpretations, to very different projections, depending on the person. I prefer to concentrate instead on the nature of the music itself, to base my views on the harmonies and rhythms, and to let the poetry and emotion flow directly from the writing. And then each listener can match the music with his or her individual sensibilities or fantasies.

Sonata No. 9, the so-called Black Mass, is said to evoke feelings of terror. How do you handle these powerful implications at the keyboard?

The art of interpretation is knowing how to create emotions from the score without getting submerged by it. It’s a sort of control.  Working on scores can sometimes put me into a different state of mind. And then, when playing at a concert, one must retain mastery of the material while letting oneself go. For me, this balance is what makes my profession totally magic.

What do you think of the Promethean or mystic chord and Scriabin’s concept underlying it?

Harmonics is the musical element to which I am most sensitive. It’s clear that the special character of Scriabin and the complexity of his chords puts me in a very particular state. What’s important is that Scriabin’s harmonic sensations are unlike any other composer’s. It’s a world entirely apart, a unique style.
Have you ever played Prometheus? Would you welcome a chance to perform it?

I have never played it but would love to have such an opportunity. In fact one of my objectives in life is to play all of Scriabin’s piano music!

This is your third CD after Prokofiev and Letters from Armenia. Are more in the pipeline?

Following my first CD, my Prokofiev, I decided to concentrate either on recording complete works, such as the Scriabin sonatas, or on recitals of originality, such as Letters from Armenia. . My two following CDs were recorded at about the same time and were released together. This was a particularly dense and busy period for me. And now, among other programs, I regularly play pieces from the two discs.

How are you balancing your recording life with your live performances in recitals and concerts ? Which mode gets your priority?

It’s important for me to avoid becoming a “professional recording artist” and to lose contact with live audiences.  So after those recordings, I needed concerts and moments of reflection to rebuild my resources. I have a number of future CDs in mind but for the moment my priority is concertizing and personal study.

You have commemorated the Armenian genocide tragedy on your CD titled Letters from Armenia. How personally do you feel that tragedy? Did your family lose relatives in the events of 1915?

Indeed, my family was brutally affected by the genocide. Part of my mother’s family disappeared during this tragedy, which in fact spared no Armenians. Obviously the scars are still there just a painfully a hundred years later. My country is still awaiting recognition of the genocide by the descendants of those who perpetrated it.

You have performed Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. Do you have other Armenian music in your repertoire?

Khachaturian is obviously the most popular Armenian composer but the real father of Armenian music is Komitas. Much like Bartok in Hungary, he borrowed popular music of his country and transcribed a number of religious pieces. I play his music as well as that of a Khachaturian contemporary, Anro Babadjanian.  There are several other Armenian composers I intend to play in the future.

You have lived many years in France. How important is your Armenian culture to you today?

I have lived in France for fourteen years and France has become my country although Armenia is always present in my thinking and feelings. My family lives in Yerevan and I visit there regularly. But in my younger years when I lived there I was already passionate about French culture – the great authors, the great painters. And now there is a logical equilibrium in me that allows me to live in the two cultures.

You entered the Paris Conservatory and did very well. Was this an artistic turning point for you? Which of your teachers qualifies as your true mentor, and why?

I left Armenia to study at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris and I joined the class of Brigitte Engerer, a former student of Stanislav Neuhaus in Moscow. There was something natural about studying with such a fantastic pianist who also acquired a dual culture. While at the Conservatoire I won piano and chamber music prizes and pursued advanced studies in both disciplines. Today I am very happy to be teaching at this prestigious institution.

Do you believe Scriabin was mad, a genius, or perhaps a mad genius?

Madness is an illness that prevents one from exercising control. The scientific music of Scriabin could never have been written if he was mad. He was obviously a genius whose originality continues to surprise us even a hundred years after his death. He was an artist who never was afraid to destabilize us, to impose upon us totally different and innovative musical ideas. He was a courageous creator of music, powerful and universal, without concessions.

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