Kian Soltani

On his debut Deutsche Grammophon album, cellist Kian Soltani traces his musical roots in works by Schubert, Schumann and Iranian composer Reza Vali

Born in 1992 to Iranian parents in the Austrian town of Bregenz, Kian Soltani is one of the most exciting cellists of his generation. “I’ve always felt at home in Austria”, he says. “And yet, the Persian side of my family gave me a chance to grow up with two cultures.” Bringing together Austro-German Romantic works and contemporary Iranian music, Soltani’s debut DG album, Home, expresses that sense of being rooted in a dual heritage. His pianist is Aaron Pilsan, whose background has parallels with Soltani’s. Home is due for release on 12 January, and Soltani and Pilsan will be performing some of its repertoire live at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden and the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin early in the new year.

There are plenty of young cellists out there, but very few as versatile as Kian Soltani. The son of professional musicians from Iran, Soltani was born in 1992 in Bregenz, in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg. He was shaped by two cultures, and they both feature on his debut Deutsche Grammophon album, for which he has chosen the title Home. Alongside works by Schubert and Schumann, Soltani presents a set of Persian Folk Songs by contemporary Iranian composer Reza Vali (b. 1952). “I’m Austrian”, says the cellist, “but there has always been this other, Persian, side to me as well.”

On Home, he travels from Romanticism, with its desire to emulate European folk music, to a living composer’s take on Persian folk traditions. Beginning with works by Schumann and Schubert – “I grew up with them and I feel at home with this music” – he rounds off the album with music by Reza Vali, a friend of the family who, like the Soltanis, emigrated from Iran. Vali’s Persian Folk Songs was written to commission and premiered by Kian Soltani and Aaron Pilsan in May 2017.

“For this album, I chose works that remind me of home and which I really love.” Past and present, West and East, art music and folk song... the tension between them gives rise to a sound at whose heart lies the question of provenance. Who am I? Where do I belong? It’s a series of musical pictures.

For Soltani’s pianist Aaron Pilsan too, the subject of home and ancestry has personal resonances: his father is Romanian, but like Soltani, Pilsan grew up in Vorarlberg. “And it was Kian who introduced me to Persian folk songs”, he says, laughing. Soltani and Pilsan have been performing together for around four years now.

The first piece on the recording is Schubert’s famous Arpeggione Sonata. The arpeggione was a specifically Viennese invention: a six-string cross between a guitar and a cello. Had it not been for Schubert’s masterpiece, it would probably have been completely forgotten. The sonata poses considerable technical challenges for cellists. “We’re quite simply two strings short,” laughs Soltani. “No one is supposed to hear this, of course; everything has to sound light and effortless.” However, he also underlines the fact that the virtuosic demands should not blind us to the incredible depth of Schubert’s music.

The second Romantic composer to whom Kian Soltani feels an attachment is Schumann, whose 3 Fantasiestücke op. 73 and Adagio and Allegro in A flat major op. 70 he has chosen to include here. Both works date from 1849 and both exhibit the alternation between melancholy and exultation so typical of Schumann’s music; in Op.70 the two are openly contrasted, in Op.73 they are melded together to create a greater whole. Soltani and Pilsan have already given a number of concerts featuring Schumann’s music – in fact the Adagio and Allegro was the first piece they performed together professionally. Home also includes arrangements for cello and piano of Schumann’s song “Du bist wie eine Blume”, it too in A flat major, and Schubert’s moving “Nacht und Träume”.

The album concludes with a set of Persian Folk Songs by Reza Vali, who comes from Qazvin in northern Iran. “I wanted my listeners to discover something new as well”, explains Soltani. Vali explores his relationship with tradition across seven individual movements, quoting well-known Persian folk songs, imitating them and inventing new ones. Love is repeatedly evoked, without words, but with all the power and sensitivity of the cello’s sonority. When Soltani first performed this cycle, the critics recognised that there were surprising parallels with the Romantic mindset, for example in Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston. For Soltani, on the other hand, Vali is “something like the Bartók of Iran, because he collects melodic material from Persian folk music and puts it in a classical context”.

Together with his accompanist Aaron Pilsan, Kian Soltani has produced a debut album that has a clear central theme and yet treats each piece as an independent work of art. “It’s a unique feeling to know a place precisely”, he explains. “The colours, the air, the fragrance. That’s home. This same basic feeling is evoked by music, by certain composers. Those are the ones I’ve chosen.”