Mischa Maisky in Toronto

by Arlan Vriens | March 7, 2022

Mischa Maisky by Kalya Ramu

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After a lifetime on the international stage, the celebrated cellist remains dedicated to expressive, evolving interpretations of the masterworks.

“I haven’t discovered the feeling of boredom yet,” chuckles Maisky. “Bach is never boring at all!” This continuing musical curiosity has no doubt served to cement Mischa 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.

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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.

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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. 

 

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.

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