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ARTIST FEATURE: Olga Kopylova: Beethoven Piano Sonatas (3 & 16)

Pianist Olga Kopylova has just released her new album with São Paulo (Brazil)-based record label Azul Music: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2 & No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31.

Born in Uzbekistan, Olga Kopylova joined the Uspensky Special Music School (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) at the age of six. She continued her studies in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky Music College and is a graduate of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. In 2000, she moved to Brazil, assuming the position of principal pianist of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (OSESP), which she holds to this day. In 2003, she released her first solo album MORNING STAR, performing works by Russian composers. Since then, she has been a part of several symphonic recordings and has performed as a soloist with a number of orchestras. Kopylova also develops activities with chamber music groups and participates in sociocultural projects. She is a professor at the OSESP Music Academy.

Read on for the interview!



How did you get started in classical music?

I started my piano studies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, at the Uspensky Special School of Music. My father was an engineer and he greatly enjoyed classical music; the piano was his favourite instrument. He gave me my first lessons in music through a teaching method called the "Nikolaev School", and at the age of 6 he took me to the Uspensky School. This school integrated the music education system which had been developed in the Soviet Union - the renowned "Russian school". My family moved to Moscow in 1994 and I resumed my studies there, eventually graduating from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

I met many foreign students at the Conservatory - Brazilians among them. Through a violinist colleague of mine, I learned about an audition in Brazil for a position as a pianist with the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. That was how I ended up moving to Brazil. I’ve been OSESP’s main pianist since 2000.

Who are your favourite composers and why?

Since I’m a professional musician who is always working with music, it is quite difficult to name my favourite composers. Each musical era features amazing composers who have made quite significant contributions to the history of music. The names of all those who I admire simply wouldn’t fit in this interview. But if I could choose some who make me feel more puzzled than others do, these would be:

  • Hildegard von Bingen - I admire her for her courage in being a creative woman, prolific in so many fields at the time she lived, and for the purity of her music;

  • J. S. Bach - due to the complexity of his polyphonic (many-sounds) language;

  • W. A. Mozart - for his brilliant ideas, creativity and perfection;

  • L. van Beethoven - for his strength, energy and depth, as well as for his indomitable spirit;

  • R. Wagner - for his greatness;

  • F. Liszt - for his prolific production, virtuosity, and for having contributed so much to piano repertoire;

  • C. Debussy - for his sophistication;

  • M. Ravel - for his unique way of creating orchestrations;

  • C. Chaminade - for having produced so many beautiful works (click here to listen to one) while keeping her integrity and being faithful to her musical convictions, even though these were considered to be outdated by the time she lived;

  • I. Stravinsky - for his cleverness and innovations;

  • D. Shostakovich - for his grandeur;

  • S. Prokofiev - for absolutely everything;

  • S. Gubaidulina - for the sound universe which dwells in her imagination and for her intensity;

  • G. Ligeti - for being an innovator;

  • C. Guarnieri - for his sophistication, and for having uncovered the beauty which lies in the best elements from the folk music of Brazil. I have a dream that I’d like to record all of his Ponteios.

What other genres of music do you enjoy listening to, aside from classical music?

I enjoy listening to movie soundtracks by composers like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota. In jazz, musicians like Hiromi Uehara, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Keith Jarrett. Regarding the popular music of Brazil, I enjoy Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Elis Regina, João Gilberto, Gal Costa, and Maria Bethânia. But I listen to classical music most of the time.

What drew you to Beethoven and his piano sonatas?

The idea of existing and not playing Beethoven is totally inconceivable for a pianist. This composer produced a lot of music for the piano, and pianists usually start their journey by studying his music and keep on learning and playing his works all their life through. Absolutely everything he wrote for piano is amazing. It's a complex universe, full of details, with both technical and musical challenges. One could spend one’s life just playing Beethoven and time would yet be short for absorbing and passing along his ideas.

Who are your favourite Beethoven interpreters and why?

Just as it was difficult for me to name my favourite composers, this is a question which I can’t answer so easily. Many reference recordings exist.

Some interpreters such as Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Friedrich Gulda, Stephen Kovacevich, Richard Goode and Paul Lewis are great. I respect all of them as the great musicians they are, and the fact that they have played and recorded all of Beethoven's sonatas (and some, like Friedrich Gulda and Wilhelm Kempff have recorded Beethoven's entire sonata cycle several times!), certainly deserves attention. The concerts performed by Murray Perahia draw my attention for their perfection.

Friedrich Gulda

Conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Carlos Kleiber and Wilhelm Furtwängler made history by conducting Beethoven’s symphonies. Beethoven's orchestral world is grandiose, and these conductors have apprehended it each in their own personal way. I especially love Karajan, as he was such a vigorous and charismatic figure. He managed to convey much strength in all of his gestures, then persuading the whole orchestra to follow him. The recording in which Karajan conducts the Symphony no.5 with the Berlin Philharmonic is very special - I just can't breathe when I listen to this recording! I feel paralyzed when watching his gestures and face expressions - the resulting sound the orchestra produced is something unique, you just can't repeat it.

Herbert von Karajan

Unfortunately, no recording equipment existed during Liszt's lifetime. You can’t imagine how much I’d like to hear him playing or conducting Beethoven - especially his piano transcriptions of the symphonies (it's worth getting to know all of them as recorded by Cyprien Katsaris). I can't understand how, along with all of his creations, he also transcribed over 300 works - ALL of Beethoven’s symphonies among them!

I love the interpretation of his Violin Concerto by Itzhak Perlman with the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim conducting, because I deeply admire this violinist and his sound is something divine in my opinion.

Itzhak Perlman

There are other excellent musicians who have played and are currently playing Beethoven very well: Arturo Michelangeli, G. Gould, S. Richter, R. Serkin, C. Arrau, D. Barenboim, E. Kissin, V. Lisitsa and I. Levitt, among others . Mentioning all of them here just wouldn't fit, but I've always listened to their recordings and will keep on listening to recordings and recitals by great musicians, and I'm impressed with the ability each one of them has to convey the ideas from this great composer in different ways. I believe Beethoven's music will always draw our attention to its beauty.

But as for my interpreter of choice, I’ve got one whom I admire more than others - a personal preference of mine, one to whom I intimately relate: Marc-André Hamelin. I love everything he plays, I love his way of thinking about music, I love his technical perfection, his cleverness. I could listen to this live recording from 2006 every day, several times a day, for the rest of my life.

What is something people might be surprised to know about Beethoven?

Some very good sources exist in order to get to know about Beethoven's life. His letters (first published in 1866) for example, from which we can learn a lot about some important details in his life. There is also an interesting book by musicologist D. W. Jons, which gives us good insight about life in Bonn and Vienna in Beethoven’s time, without idealising things and without sentimentality - simply narrating the facts about Beethoven's life by analysing his reality, the one to which he belonged. I appreciate this approach - a more sociological one.

Another important biography one should know was written by Jan Swafford, American composer and musicologist. It is essential (and more intimate) reading, and its merit is that it discloses the tensions within Beethoven's personality. The interesting thing about this read is that it was written by a composer. Therefore, his approach is a deeper one, I would say, made by someone who can understand the anguish of creative processes face to reality, as he is also a creator.

One fact which I found very interesting, and would like to share here, is about how anguished Beethoven felt regarding the remuneration for his works. While I read his letters, one of them, to Anton Hofmeister (the composer and editor of his works), made me ponder how much Beethoven's works would be worth today. His Symphony no. 9, for example. How can one measure how much this cultural heritage of mankind is worth?

The first page of one of Beethoven's letters, to his "Immortal Beloved"

Beethoven writes in this letter: "There should exist only one great art depot in the world, to which artists could resource to by bringing in their works and, upon presenting them, receive that which he needed; but judging by the way it goes now, one needs to be half merchant - and how could this be tolerated? My God in heavens! I might as well call this very troublesome!" (Letter from Beethoven to Kapellmeister Hofmeister. Vienna. January 15, 1801).

In the same letter, he offers 4 of his works: Sonata op. 22, Concerto op. 19, Septet op. 20 and Symphony op. 21, asking for a total of 70 Dukatos (the currency of the time) for them, confessing that he is, in fact, a terrible merchant. The distaste he had for negotiating his works becomes evident. Pondering this, I think about the complex reality of composers, who, upon dedicating themselves to their creative processes, have to consider their survival first.

Such issues regarding the relationship between creative processes and reality really puzzle me a lot, because we tend to idealize the great artists by picturing them as living in an illusory world - ever creating, their heads in the clouds. Such fantasy is far from reality. All artists need to pay their bills, take care of their daily chores and do what everyone else does. What often drives their creative processes is perhaps nothing more than their search for ways to support themselves.

Tell us the process of developing, rehearsing, and recording your new album!

The idea of making this album came about in 2020, which was a year of celebrations on occasion of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. The world prepared programs which included Beethoven’s music – symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and more. However, most of the performances which had been planned were cancelled due to the outbreak of the pandemic.

I had played Liszt’s transcribed version of Beethoven's Symphony no. 5 in a recital in March 2020. The world shut down soon after, and long quarantine months began. During this period of confinement at home, I dedicated my time to reading through all of Beethoven's sonatas, among other things. I wanted to recall my days at the Moscow Conservatory, where piano students had to know all of his sonatas.

Studying Beethoven’s sonatas was a part of our routine, and we as students loved it. The universe of Beethoven's sonatas is a very rich one, in all aspects. It's nearly impossible to figure out how he managed to create such a variety of musical elements. From his first sonata (op. 2, no. 1), the peculiar features in Beethoven's style already become evident, and a world of ideas and innovations emerges with each sonata.

As I read the sonatas in my quarantine, Beethoven’s op. 2, no. 3 caught my attention due to the contagious energy present in those nimble movements, as well as the depth contained in its second movement. This sonata has long been on my radar as one of the pieces I dreamed of presenting to the public. Some pieces move us more than others do; it's a matter of relativity. Generally speaking, I’m passionate about virtuoso pieces, and this sonata is virtuosic from start to finish. Whenever I face significant technical difficulties, it is a great stimulus for me, and that’s because I want to overcome those challenges in order to play with perfection.

I already knew the sonata op.31, no. 1, and had also played it when I lived in Moscow. The second movement in this sonata is a spoof about an Italian opera house, and constitutes an immense challenge as it is filled with ornaments, trills and cadenzas. The main goal here is to build an aria by imitating the art of singing and creating a mood for something beautiful, while at the same time conveying an implicit feeling of irony.

These two sonatas had been scheduled for a series of recitals, which would take place at Sala São Paulo along the year 2020. They have been postponed till January 2021 due to the pandemic. As we weren’t allowed to celebrate New Year's Eve surrounded by family and friends, I spent New Year's Eve studying these two sonatas at the piano, in order to play them in recital on the stage of Sala São Paulo on January 13, 2021. However, being able to spend the Réveillon in the company of Beethoven was truly a gift for me. It was one of the most memorable New Year’s Eve's of my whole life!

In January, after the recital, I decided to record an album of these two sonatas. I wanted to remember this unusual year, and to never forget the importance these pieces had had for me; they had strengthened my spirit in that moment by bringing hope and meaning to me amid the despair and chaos.

What do you hope listeners will gain from listening to this album?

This album is very dear to me, because recording Beethoven is an act of courage; it means exposing yourself to criticism in advance. Many reference recordings of these sonatas exist, and they are very good. And so, what could I do differently? That’s the eternal concern of music interpreters: to create something new, unprecedented, and at the same time being as faithful as possible to composers' ideas. In fact, we’ll never know what a composer's intentions were, and guessing is all that we can do.

Nevertheless, all these fears and worries ultimately ceased to exist. I related to these pieces on such a deep level that the mere act of living with them for a period of time made me feel completely satisfied; it made me feel fulfilled. I believe that when such things happen - the complete connection of the performer to the work one is performing - listeners somehow perceive it.

Maybe that's my goal: to somehow convey to listeners how I felt when playing these music works, sharing their richness and strength. Beethoven's music always feels like that; it infects you with its extraordinary energy. It's impossible to feel indifferent when listening to his music. It disturbs us, stirs our imagination, takes us out of our comfort zone by challenging us (in a good way).

A new element which I had the audacity to introduce, and which causes my interpretation of the Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 to be distinct from all others, is the execution of the coda from the third movement (marked Scherzo) in the tempo of the movement which follows it, which I decided to play in an attacca (without a break) way. I felt that if I did it this way, the sonata would become more unified within the context of its form. It worked really well, I guess, because the coda still introduced the tempo for the next movement. I wonder what the audience and critics will think of this, and, likewise, I don’t know what the composer would say about it. However, I believe the result of our interpretive process has to convince us as artists in the first place. Sometimes I try alternative things and I'm convinced it works this way and it can't be any different.

In contrast, I play the first movement from the Sonata No. 1, Op. 31 (Allegro Vivace) a tad more calmly than other performers. I don't feel I need to play this movement fast, because its character is comic, and it takes time and space in order to demonstrate all the irony contained in it. True virtuosity takes place in the second movement (Adagio) which is an aria and contains all sorts of virtuosic ornaments.

What would you say to someone who is not familiar with classical music but would like to get started?

I’d like to say that the habit of listening to classical music is just like any other - you need to cultivate it. If you don't expose yourself to listening, how can you make a habit out of it? It's like tasting new flavours, new seasonings: the more we try it, the more we get to know them and have an opportunity for enjoying them. This happens with reading; once we read a good book which draws our attention by making us breathless, we want to read more until we can't imagine our life without good reads.

Listening to classical music feels just like enjoying a good dish, like embarking on an incredible journey, or even leaving for another dimension. It’s a universal language which needs no special training. It’s just listening and letting the sounds take you. Classical music eliminates the barriers between people; it talks to each person in a distinct way, bringing inspiration and comfort to the soul.

I recommend to everybody to start listening to the great composers such as Beethoven, for example. There are many wonderful recordings of his works available on all digital platforms. You just have to start listening!


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Track-by-track breakdown

  • Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major. Op.2, No. 3: I. Allegro con brio

One of Beethoven's most vigorous creations. Here we find pure virtuosity and contagious joy. The second theme introduces contrast and a lyrical aspect, but it doesn't take long and the initial energy returns. It's a famous movement for its intervals in thirds in the right hand and is quite challenging in technical terms.

  • Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major. Op.2, No.3: II. Adagio

It’s incredible to think that even in the Op. 2 sonatas (his first piano sonatas), Beethoven brings depth to his slow movements; this became his trademark until his last sonata (No. 32). This Adagio movement is long and quite deep. It begins in a contemplative mood, as if it came from a church choir. Then drama suddenly appears, with the "Dies Irae" motif appearing in the left hand in inverted form (I guess that such a theme in the left hand must be the "Dies Irae"), changing the initial contemplation mood into one of tragedy and supplication.

Beethoven always introduces these contrasts: joy, introspection and tragedy. And here we may really feel something disturbing which overtook him by the time he wrote this sonata. By the end of the movement, a catharsis takes place, as the theme ascends to higher registers. In this moment I feel as if I had been lifted to the heavens, as if I had left my body, staying among the angels, as if all pain has been cleared…

I love this movement, for I feel it encompasses all aspects of human existence.

  • Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op.2, No.3: III. Scherzo.Allegro,, IV.Allegro assai

How fantastic this Scherzo is! It's the perpetual motion, as if it were a machine, a music box. However, in the Trio, the playful character gets interrupted by the drama once more. In turbulence, right-hand arpeggios overlap with a stern, steady theme in the left hand. In putting an end to the drama, the initial music box section returns. I considered playing the coda in a faster tempo. I felt that this way I could bring more unification to the sonata form as a whole, introducing the tempo from the fourth movement.

The Rondo movement needs, in its turn, a lot of physical stamina on the part of the player. The first theme, with its fast, ascending chords, constitutes yet a challenge. And each new element that appears surprises us by its technical difficulty, until it reaches the last exposition of the theme, taking place in the left hand, with trills in the right hand becoming double trills and then triple trills, which brings performers to true exhaustion. It takes many study hours in order to play this last movement flawlessly, but every effort is rewarded with the messages of joy and strength found in this sonata.

  • Piano Sonata No.16 in G Major. Op.31, No.1: I. Allegro vivace

The syncopation is a curiosity in this movement; it even constitutes the first theme. When I started studying it, that was the first thing which drew my attention. I thought: why didn’t the composer choose to start "on the upbeat", but started with a syncopation instead? I tried to play the first theme without the syncopations, and then understood why the strong beat had been shifted: it was due to its ironic character. The syncopations stress this character and disclose the composer's intent, which was certainly a playful one. The second theme from this movement is a dance - like a cabaret-style dance. It cannot be played in an "uptight" manner, for it must display the grotesque character of such a dance.

  • Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major. Op. 31, No. 1: II. Adagio grazioso

This movement feels like a chocolate candy! It's delicious to play. Beethoven made a parody of an aria from Italian theatre, with unending, ultra difficult ornaments of all kinds. However, I think the result departed from the idea of parody, because it became too perfect. Here we have a complex, and at times sublime, movement. It's as if the composer thought: "Okay. I'm going to write a spoof about something I don't like in Italian theatre. I also know how to write in this style. I'm going to make jokes and fun here by introducing untouchable ornaments and cadenzas, etc."

However, during the process I think he sublimated this idea and exceeded his own intentions. Without losing his sense of irony (which we can feel throughout this movement from beginning to end and through the rough staccato accompaniment), the composer created an original work of art - an aria which is no longer Italian, but totally Beethovenian.

  • Piano Sonata No.16 in G Major. Op.31, No.1: III. Rondo, Allegretto-Presto

I love this movement because of its linear character and polyphony. The feeling I get here is like I'm in a maze and holding a thread, so that I don't get lost. The thread unwinds and I follow along different paths, seeing different things and hearing different voices. There are times when it feels like I'm walking through the same place again (as the Rondo theme returns), but it's not: those are different paths. Beethoven changes the main theme and brings it back with new aspects added.

The album is available on all major streaming platforms.


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