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Mischa Maisky in Toronto

“The only thing I try to do is to destroy Bach’s music as little as possible.”


NOV 14, 2022 | ISSUE 9

Mischa Maisky by Kalya Ramu
Mischa Maisky
Mischa Maisky by Olga Nabatova

“I haven’t discovered the feeling of boredom yet,” chuckles Mischa Maisky. “Bach is never boring at all!” This continuing musical curiosity has no doubt served to cement Maisky’s position as one of the foremost cellists of the 20th and 21st centuries. After formative studies with industry legends Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, he forged a career in collaboration with the highest-profile names in classical music, championing robust, personal interpretations of the core cello repertoire and beyond. Speaking with smART Magazine Editor in Chief Michael Zarathus-Cook, Maisky considers his lifelong relationship with Bach’s cello suites and weighs in on the state of contemporary cello performance.

sM | After all these years of playing Bach suites, what has changed and what remains the same?

MM ─ My late brother started as a violinist, but his passion for Bach led him to switch to musicology and keyboards. He was the one who gave me my first score of Bach suites, for my 11th birthday, which means I probably started playing the first suite over 60 years ago! I still treasure that copy of the score because it includes a facsimile of Anna Magdalena Bach’s handwritten copy. It’s so beautiful, and I love to look at it for inspiration.

A long time ago, my great teacher Rostropovich told me that, no matter how much you play the Bach solo suites, there’s no program more challenging. You’re alone on stage, and it requires one hundred percent of your concentration and energy to keep the audience’s attention. Sometimes concert organizers worry that Bach won’t land well with audiences, but that’s total nonsense. Of course, if the player chooses to play it “intellectually,” then it needs an audience of so-called connoisseurs to appreciate it. But if it’s played with heart, then anyone who has heart can enjoy and appreciate this music. Now, I’ve played Bach suites all over the world, from 2,000-seat concert halls to churches that only fit 40 or 50 people. They’re usually my best-selling concerts, and recordings of Bach suites are by far my best-selling recordings.

Sometimes people meet me backstage and say, “Oh my God, you made this music so great.” But the only thing I try to do is to destroy Bach’s music as little as possible. This music is so great that no matter how hard we try, we inevitably pull it down closer to earth, but we should try as much as possible to lift ourselves and the audience up to the music. It’s an endless process. 

If music is my religion, then I think of the Bach suites as my Bible. Just like the Bible, there are incredible possibilities for interpreting Bach. I have over 55 recordings of Bach suites at home, and sometimes you can barely recognize that they’re all playing the same music. I haven’t discovered the feeling of boredom yet. Bach is never boring at all! 

Even though I played all six suites in Toronto just a few years ago, I’m happy to come and do it again soon, because it’s never the same. My recordings already feel outdated—they’re like photos taken at different times in life. That’s one reason I’m wary of anyone who says they know “the truth” about how to play something. First of all, there are many different truths, particularly in music. But more importantly, music is a living organism. It’s dormant when it’s on paper, but the moment we perform it, we wake it up and bring it to life, where it can evolve and change.

sM | Rostropovich once described you as “one of the most outstanding talents of the younger generation.” How have the new crop of emerging cellists caught your ear in a similar way?

MM ─ There’s an amazing number of remarkable young cellists now. It’s incredible to see how the level of cello playing has just skyrocketed. I remember listening to the semifinals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition a couple of years ago while I was awake with jet lag. Everyone sounded so good that I called my wife and I told her, “It’s just amazing what these youngsters do. Maybe I should retire. Maybe I’m getting too old.” But then when I listened to the finals, I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t retire!”

My point is that the technical level of playing is phenomenal, but that can lead young cellists to think that, in order to succeed in that environment, they need to practice even more so they can play even faster, louder, and cleaner. There’s a danger that, subconsciously, the priorities get switched around: the instrument becomes the most important thing and the music is only used to show how wonderful you play your instrument. This is completely wrong. If I had to pinpoint the most important thing I learned from Rostropovich, it’s that a musical instrument is only what the word “instrument” implies: a vehicle that helps us reach the music. 

We always try to get a little closer to all kinds of perfection, of course, but perfection is an illusion, like trying to reach the horizon. As long as you know you’ll never touch it or reach it, there’s no frustration in the process. On a daily basis, I encounter such great composers and legacies that I feel so humble and insignificant by comparison. No matter how hard I try, I will never even come close to the greatness of this music, but I keep trying to improve a little all the time. When people ask me what my best recording is, I say, “I hope it’s the next one.”

sM | How has the invasion of Ukraine impacted you as an artist?

MM ─ Every day I want to wake up and realize it was all just a nightmare. It’s horrendous what’s going on, and it’s totally despicable. My parents both came from Ukraine. I was born and raised in Latvia after the war, but I grew up in the Soviet Union and my cultural roots have a very strong Russian influence. I have many Ukrainian friends and colleagues, and I hear stories about their families on a daily basis. I also know so many Russian people personally who are incredibly generous and warm, so this whole situation is literally unbelievable. I just hope that somehow, miraculously, it will stop as soon as possible. Anybody with a heart is deeply feeling this situation—something like this happening again, in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe, is literally unbelievable.