“I’m not a Butterfly”
Mischa Maisky in conversation with Sören Ingwersen
Herr Maisky, why an album of Spanish music?
I’ve been including Spanish music in my programmes for many years, and for a long time I’ve been waiting for a chance to record an album with these pieces as I’m really extremely fond of them.
What’s so fascinating about this music?
It’s full of life. I was born in Latvia on the Baltic, and so people might assume I had a different temperament. But, emotionally speaking, I feel very close to this music. And for audiences too it’s very appealing. When I play pieces by Granados, Falla and Albéniz onstage, the response is always hugely enthusiastic, no matter whether it’s in Asia, Europe or the United States.
Do you have any connections with Spain?
Only very indirectly. My father was a committed Communist. That’s why my parents gave the name Lina to my elder sister, who was born during the Spanish Civil War – she was named after the famous Spanish Communist Lina Odena, who was killed during the Civil War.
With Spanish music one tends to think of the guitar and the piano. Is it problematical to transcribe this music for the cello?
Many of these pieces, including Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, started life as songs. Since the cello comes very close to the sound of the human voice, my interpretation on this instrument sounds entirely natural. But the question as to whether one can play Spanish music on a cello has less to do with the instrument than with the temperament and musical abilities of the performer – and also with the choice of pieces. Not every piece lends itself to being transcribed for cello.
Did you prepare all these arrangements yourself?
Only a few of them. Most of the pieces already existed in the form of arrangements. In those cases I made only a handful of changes in order to align them as closely as possible with the original. Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, for example, had already been arranged for violin by Paul Kochanski, and this was then adapted for cello by Maurice Maréchal. For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the order of the pieces was changed. I’ve recorded them in their original order, which strikes me as far more attractive. Some arrangers have taken it into their heads to improve the magnificent originals in an attempt to surpass them, something I consider arrogant and as a rule unachievable. The best arrangement is the one that comes closest to the original and best captures its mood. The less you change, the better.
What role is played by the selection and order of the pieces?
A very important one. I’ve no interest in creating any extraneous sense of contrast, but set store by balance and continuity. It doesn’t disturb me, for example, if a CD features only slow pieces. In the concert hall I prefer to perform each half without interruptions for applause. I’m not a butterfly flitting from flower to flower in a constant search for new stimuli. That’s why I’ve been performing for thirty-eight years on the same cello, that’s why I’ve been with Deutsche Grammophon for twenty-nine years and why I keep playing my repertoire in order to get deeper and deeper into the works of the great masters.
Your album also includes the Catalan folk song El cant dels ocells – The Song of the Birds, one of Pablo Casals’ display pieces. Is your album also a tribute to the great Catalan cellist?
Of course. I’m the only cellist to have had the privilege of studying with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky. But one of my most unforgettable experiences was meeting the legendary Pablo Casals in Jerusalem on 18 August 1973, two months before his death. He was almost ninety-seven at the time. We spoke privately together for several hours, and I played for him some of my favourite pieces. At another occasion I heard him play this wonderful piece, El cant dels ocells. It’s a very popular piece today, especially in Japan. On the National Day of Mourning marking the sixtieth anniversary of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was asked to play this piece and a Bach Sarabande before an audience of 120,000 in both these cities.
The present album is the first you’ve recorded with your daughter Lily.
My album Song of the Cello already included five pieces we’ve performed live together, but this is the first time we’ve worked together on an entire album. I’m much older than my daughter, and I try to let her share in my experience, something I think she values. But she has a mind of her own and often has her own ideas about the music. Since I’m open to these new ideas, I too often learn from her, which is always very stimulating for me. In that way we influence one another.