Interview: Mischa Maisky on new music, authentic performances and sound quality

'I think you should always do what you do best. I'm a cellist. That is why I don't conduct, and I don't teach.'

24 March 2009

Mischa Maisky

Cellist Mischa Maisky, who celebrated his 61st birthday on 10 January this year, is a relatively infrequent visitor to the UK. When I ask him why he does not play here more often, he turns the question round: 'You have many good cellists of your own, why invite me to come all the way over from Europe?'

It is tongue in cheek of course, and Maisky in full conversational flow has a nice line in English irony and a well-stocked reservoir of musical anecdotes to illustrate the points he is making. But he will be over in the UK in just under four weeks, at the Royal Festival Hall with the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski on 22 April, and there is a treat in store: the UK premiere of the Yusupov cello concerto, a work that has been described as 'a musical portrait of Maisky himself'. Before getting on to that concert, and that particular work, I asked Maisky about his attitude to new music in general. How does he achieve a balance between the established cello repertoire and the commissioning of new work?

'I try to make an effort with new music. I think it is important to encourage living composers, just as Slava (Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the major influences on Maisky's cello playing and on his life) always did. But I don't think there should be any hard and fast rule, the playing of new music purely for its own sake. I would place the occasional new piece of real quality above sheer quantity any time'.

Sounds reasonable enough. But what about the intellectual and physical effort of learning a brand new piece? Is Maisky a quick learner? 'There are some who are much better than me! But maybe – and this is the quality point again – I am too much of a perfectionist. If you play a piece of Bach or Mozart badly, that has no effect on the reputation of the composers – they survive regardless. But if you play a brand new, unknown piece badly, it downgrades the composer.  I don't like to do that'. And Maisky goes on to make a key statement about himself that I think often defines his playing. 'I play cello from the heart. I never play anything that I don't love'.

This brings us to the Benjamin Yusupov concerto, a piece that Maisky certainly loves and is playing in a number of European venues this year as well as at the Festival Hall.  He starts with a modest disclaimer: 'I have to admit that I am not very objective about it, because it was dedicated to me and is supposed to be my own portrait in music. How would I describe it? Well, it's a post-modernist piece, which in performance has a profound effect on its audience. If it has a programme, I suppose it represents the struggle that an idealistic artist always has with society. But its musical language is very special and very touching – some elements are Russian, some Gypsy and some Jewish. It has four short movements – the whole concerto only lasts about 25 minutes – and it has a quiet ending.  And it represents what I truly believe – that music has to speak to one's heart'.

Mischa MaiskyThe Festival Hall concert bears the label 'Post-Soviet tapestries' and features an orchestral soundscape by Giya Kancheli, 'Another Step' and the Fifth Symphony of Valentin Silvestrov, in addition to the Yusupov concerto. It is an unusual and challenging programme featuring music by a Georgian, a Tajik now living in Israel and a Ukrainian. Maisky has no doubt that it will be quite an event and enthuses equally about the ability of the LPO to master new and challenging music in rapid time – 'they are incredibly good and quick sight readers: your British orchestras are the champions at that' – and the ability of Jurowski to be a persuasive interpreter. 'The concerto will be fantastic with him conducting. I have the experience of once playing the same programme in quick succession with three different conductors in the USA, and each concert was incredibly different. There is the famous quip by Piatigorsky that conductors have it easy because every work they perform is in C major, but actually a conductor with character, personality and technique can totally transform a piece of music'. I tell Maisky that Jurowski has built up quite a following in the UK and he promptly asks me if I think a London audience will turn out in numbers on 22 April and be receptive to three new and unfamiliar works. I reassure him that I think they will.

His mention of Gregor Piatigorsky reminds me of one of Maisky's unique features as a cellist: the only man to have been the pupil both of Rostropovich and of Piatigorsky. It is of course irresistible to ask him which man was the greater influence on his way of playing, but it is a question he has been asked many times before and Maisky is careful in his reply. His love and undying admiration for Rostropovich is a given, for Maisky was his pupil at a crucial and formative time in his evolution as a musician. This was in 1966, when the young outsider Maisky took part in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow (the only Russian contestant to do so who was not studying under Rostropovich at the time) and was awarded 6th place. More importantly, his real prize was to be taken on by Rostropovich as his pupil and to move from Leningrad to Moscow. The personal relationship between the two men became almost that of father and son, and there is no doubt that Maisky has carried a torch for the campaigning, civilised human and musical values of Rostropovich ever since.

So what did Piatigorsky add, when Maisky later went to study with him in Los Angeles in 1974?'Piatigorsky influenced me in so many different ways. First of all, I was a bit older and I was undoubtedly a better student throughout the four intensive months that he taught me, almost every day. Secondly, I was meeting a cellist who had a legendary reputation in Russia and whom everybody – including Slava – admired unconditionally. And what he taught me above all was the importance of sound quality – the most important feature of all for a cellist. We used to play cello duets together, and sometimes we would swap cellos and try to recreate each other's sound.  It was a wonderful experience'.

Mischa MaiskyThe cello that Maisky owns was made by Domenico Montagnana in the 1730s and was made available to him by a well-wisher who attended Maisky's debut concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1973. Contrary to folklore, it was not an outright gift but an assisted purchase: a Jewish cultural foundation first bought it for Maisky from the previous owner at an artificially low price and some years later Maisky himself raised the money to buy it from the foundation. The instrument is clearly the love of Maisky's life. What is so special about it? 'Piatigorsky, when he used to take it from me and play, described it best. He said it was warm and approachable. By contrast, a Stradivarius cello is aloof and noble'. I can see why Maisky likes this comparison. His artistic credo is all about approachability, the breaking down of barriers and the subversion of establishment. 'It comes from my early adult life in the Soviet Union, when anyone who was not with the ruling communist elite was against them. I had my problems of course, but what I learned above all was the importance of tolerance of others. And that means other people, other attitudes, other credos'. This leads on to a line that I have heard from Maisky before. 'I was born in Latvia and educated in Russia. I am Jewish, I drive a Japanese car and wear a Swiss watch, my children were born in France, Belgium and Italy – what does that make me?' A citizen of the world is the obvious answer.

I ask Maisky about the cello repertoire – how does he feel about playing the same concerti many times over? 'To be honest, I cannot complain. The greatest works have so much depth that any decent cellist can play them again and again, and learn something new each time. Of course we do not have the sheer number and variety of concerti as say violinists and pianists, but there is still plenty of repertoire to explore. I have also become interested in arrangements for cello of other works, not to enlarge the repertoire per se but to explore the sound qualities of the instrument. Music must be a true expression of emotion. If you can get that truth into your playing, you can achieve anything'.

And there is chamber music – before I have even finished my question, Maisky is reeling off the chamber music concerts he will be playing in 2009, particularly at the Verbier Festival. He highlights a Schubert Trio with pianist Lang Lang and violinist Vadim Repin as well as a Trout Quintet with a wonderful line-up of Martha Argerich, Joshua Bell, Yuri Bashmet and double bass player Leigh Mesh. But miss either of those and you can hear the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Trios on another evening with Joshua Bell and Evgeni Kissin! With musical friends and colleagues like these, Maisky's enthusiasm for the chamber music side of his repertoire is obvious. And he has half an eye on the chamber music possibilities of two of his own children – his pianist daughter already appears with Maisky all over Europe, and his elder son is a violinist in the making.

If there is one aspect of Maisky's playing that draws criticism in some quarters, it is his unashamed Romanticism. Having known a number of his contemporaries at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1960s and having heard them play Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in the Romantic style on many occasions, I ask him about this – the propensity to use rubato and vibrato in a way that exponents of authenticity in musical performance rather avoid. Maisky is alert to the charge. 'To be honest, I don't think anybody today really knows how this music was played. I don't believe there is any such thing as authenticity of style. What there is, far more, is authenticity of emotion – or, in my view, a series of different authenticities. I think Bach was an intensely vibrant, Romantic man. He had twenty children, remember. It was Otto Klemperer who was once told that Bach should not be played with vibrato and who replied: No vibrato? Twenty children and no vibrato? I tend to agree with Klemperer!'

Warming to his theme, Maisky adduces Pierre Boulez and those whom the latter has called 'reconstructionists', attempting to recreate the world of Louis XIV by setting a table with antique candlesticks and imagining that this is all that is required. 'The structure is just the framework, within which the passion and emotion of the music is expressed. Do we somehow imagine that Bach did not feel emotion as deeply as we do today? Are we doing his music a favour by trying to think ourselves backwards in time, to a performing style that we no longer feel but impose on the notes because some people say this is how it must have sounded? Bach was progressive, a forward thinker.He would be fascinated with the developments of today. I can only play his music as I feel it'.

Maisky in conversation is refreshingly unstuffy, cheerful and full of musical anecdotes. His early adult life in the Soviet Union of Brezhnev was a time when the subversive joke was a release valve from the awfulness of the political situation and when music-making transcended all the miseries of daily life. He says:  'Looking back, I can still hardly believe how lucky we were to have been surrounded by musicians like Sviatoslav Richter and Rostropovich and to have been able to go to their concerts all the time'. He does not go into the darker period that followed, when as punishment for his sister's emigration to Israel, Maisky was arrested and imprisoned for 4 months (on a petty contraband charge) and then sentenced to 14 months' hard labour. But he does still, clearly, have happy memories and feel gratitude for the period that preceded his political imprisonment.

I ask him finally for a mission statement – his own approach to music-making. He is very direct. 'I think you should always do what you do best. In my case, I'm a cellist. That is why I don't conduct, and I don't teach. Others do both, and it may be fine for them, but I just play'.

So when Maisky tackles the Yusupov cello concerto in London on 22 April, he will 'just' play it. And it will end quietly. Somehow those are two aspects that I cannot quite reconcile with the strong, vibrant musical personality of master cellist Mischa Maisky.

By Mike Reynolds

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MaiskyRelated articles:

Concert Review: Slava: A Gala tribute to Rostropovich with Maisky
Concert Review: Mischa and Lily Maisky at the Edinburgh Festival
Concert Review: Transcriptions of Bach's Goldberg Variations with Maisky
CD Review: 'Morgen' - Maisky plays Strauss and Dvorak on DG

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