"It's another life," gasps Valentina Lisitsa when I ask her about her early days in the Kiev Conservatoire. She has been settled in the United States for the past 12 years but still remembers the brutal single-mindedness of the old Soviet system.

"It's the sort of the thing you see in competitions. Musicians are well trained, well prepared, along exactly the same lines - one sonata by Beethoven, a prelude and fugue by Bach and an etude. You could be woken up in the middle of the night and play them without missing a note.

"But," she adds, "what do you do after that?"

This weekend the Ukranian pianist plays Bartok and Ravel with the NZSO - just two concertos out of the staggering 37 she has in her repertoire. Bartok's Third, featured on Friday night, has a special place. "It was Bartok's last piece and every little detail becomes so precious. There isn't a note that could be dropped."

By contrast, Ravel's G major Concerto is "such a happy piece", Lisitsa exclaims with a peal of laughter. "Very elegant and very brilliant - I think he was very jealous of Gershwin. It all sounds very American and the best recording is the one with Bernstein conducting and playing."

What other pianists does she admire, apart from Bernstein?

The list starts: "Bachauer, Gieseking, Hoffmann ... " Lisitsa reflects for a moment and qualifies her approval of Hoffmann. "Just for the ease with which he plays Chopin. I'm not so sure about his Beethoven No 4." More peals of laughter.

There are unexpected memories of Sviatoslav Richter.

"Richter would come to Kiev, trying out new programmes so they weren't as polished as they would become in the West. We'd stand in line for a day trying to get a ticket. He would sit down, open the music and play a whole evening of Hindemith, something I hardly appreciated at 10 years of age."

Lisitsa is keen to talk about her adopted country and, after living in Miami for eight years, she and her pianist husband Alexei Kuznetsoff have moved to North Carolina.

"It's much closer to civilisation than Florida. It's four hours' drive to Washington DC and we can go to museums. It's rural, peaceful and people tell us it's what America used to be like."

As well as appearing regularly in piano duo recitals with Kuznetsoff, Lisitsa has guested with many regional orchestras under batons including those of New Zealanders Andrew Sewell and Grant Cooper. Middle America, she asserts, is not the cultural wasteland that some would paint it.

"People enjoy culture much more because they are not overwhelmed by it. Recently I played a recital in Rapid City, South Dakota, with quite an adventurous programme. I opened with Liszt's transcription of Schubert's entire Schwanengesang and the audience enjoyed it more than the flashy pieces in the second half."

Lisitsa has a dry wit and enjoys pointing out the piquant ironies of life's existence. "Had Shostakovich lived in America today, they would have just prescribed him some drugs for depression and made him into a happy Hollywood composer."

And as for the bogey of ageing audiences, it seems it's always been with us but for different reasons. Lisitsa was reading the letters of Chopin, while preparing for her new DVD of the composer's complete Etudes, and found that some over-enthusiastic concert manager in one town had overestimated Chopin's audience by putting out 1200 seats. "It was the beginning of hunting season, so all the young ones had gone out hunting. It's the same today, but now it would be to watch a soccer game."


*What: Valentina Lisitsa,

with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

*Where and when: Auckland Town Hall,

Friday 6.30pm; Saturday 8pm