Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
When I was very little, my mother used to play the piano and she would also invite great pianists to our house. I always used to sit under the piano: for me, it was a world where everything was possible, where everybody loved everybody. But before that even, my mother used to play when she was pregnant and I believe that even then I knew I wanted to be a pianist.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The thing that influenced me most was the reaction of audiences like prisoners – people who were not used to hearing classical music. When I saw how a performance made them so happy, so thankful, their souls so profoundly touched, I decided to create the Fondation Résonnance to take concerts to places where music seldom goes. During the last 28 years we have presented up to 500 concerts every year in places where music is seldom taken – such as hospitals, homes for the elderly, prisons – in 7 countries.
From a musical point of view my most influent masters have been Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Peter Feuchtwanger, Hilde Langer-Rühl, Sergiu Celidibache.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I remember when I was 18 years old giving a very important concert in Rome. It was my first big concert, in an old church which had been converted into a concert hall. Backstage there was a very big statue of Christ and I looked at him and I said, “This is my first concert – but it is also my last one”. And the man at the stage door asked if I could really go on and play; he could see how frightened I was. I told him I had to, and I went on and began the concert with two Scarlatti sonatas. Normally I don’t go off stage during a concert, but on that occasion I went backstage after the sonatas and looked at Christ and I said to him, “OK, it’s not going to be the last one!” And I was able to finish the concert.
The great challenge is to control fear, and to learn how to cope with the power we give other people to judge us.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I was very proud of my first recording with the RPO – the two Chopin concertos. It was very difficult, it was the first time I had met this wonderful orchestra, but we got on together so well. We have this relationship now, and that’s why I did the second one [Favourite Adagios]. I am proud because I think we achieved with Pierre Vallet what I really wanted for the Chopin, but particularly because we did it in collaboration with this great orchestra.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
It’s very difficult to answer this question because when you are playing a programme, your answer is affected. Now I am preparing Chopin works for a recital at Cadogan Hall in June and I would tell you that those are my favourite pieces, but when I was doing the Adagios – say, Bach and Mozart – I would tell you that I really liked those pieces! But if I had to take one composer to an island, I would take Frédéric Chopin.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I think that we are called by the music. Sometimes we have to choose a piece because we are asked to, but I can say that in my life I have had the great luxury of being able to choose the pieces I really felt I had to play.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I loved playing in the Wigmore Hall – it’s a few years ago now but I will never forget the acoustic for giving a recital there. I’m also very excited about my concert on 22nd June when I will play Schubert’s Ave Maria with Andrea Bocelli in Bucharest. This is going to be a new experience for me and I am very proud to do it, very excited, because it’s an immense audience.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
The Larghetto of Chopin’s F minor Concerto is perhaps the piece I love the most. I have played it since I was 12 years old. I prefer not to listen to music when I’m not playing – I really prefer a good silence.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are a lot, of course, but I would include pianists Edwin Fischer, Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the cellist Maurice Gendron, the contralto Kathleen Ferrier. And outside classical music I like the singers Barbara Streisand, Edith Piaf, and Andrea Bocelli – not only because I am going to play with him, but because he is doing really great things for music in the world.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable experience was when I played in a hospice. There was a woman there in a bed which they had brought into the hall where I was playing. She died at the end of the last chord of the Chopin Berceuse, and I remember her golden face, lit by a tear. She had a smile from another world, and at that moment I thought that Chopin would have been happy to have contributed to such a wonderful way for her to go to heaven.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think we have to re-think the role of artists in this world. For me, the mission of an artist is to share the wonder of classical music with as many people as possible, and to reach a different public, because this music has a secret capacity to really console people, to give them dignity, and to reveal something inside which is greater than us.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In ten years’ time, I would like to be in a world with more peace.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not expecting anything from anybody – just being able to be happy to give.
What is your most treasured possession?
Peace in my heart – which is music.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I am a contemplative person and what I enjoy most is being in a beautiful place in nature and just looking and meditating.
What is your present state of mind?
Immense gratitude for what has been given to me in this life, which I hope I can pass on to others.
Elizabeth Sombart plays The Art of Chopin at London’s Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 20th June. Further information and tickets here
Elizabeth Sombart’s new album Favourite Adagios from the Great Piano Concertos is available now on the Orchid Classics label.
Honoured in France for lifetime services to music, Elizabeth Sombart has performed in the most prestigious international concert venues – Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Suntory Hall (Tokyo), Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (Paris). In addition to solo and chamber music recitals, she has performed the great concertos with L’Orchestre National de Lille and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She has recorded an extensive discography, published several books, and been honoured in France for lifetime achievements and services to music.