What the magnetic cellist learned from Anne-Sophie Mutter and Msitislav Rostropovich, and how he hopes to pass some of that on.
I always remember my first experience. My mother is a piano teacher and she took me to orchestra rehearsals and when I was five years old. I heard the Schumann Cello Concerto for the first time. At that age I didn’t know anything about Schumann or the cello but I was fascinated by the way the instrument sounded and how it was played. That was the start, and then I asked her if I could have cello lessons.
You grew up in Munich. Is the German musical education a good one?
I think we have very good music schools, especially for children. Even in the villages there are people who support young children to learn an instrument and to help them find a good teacher. The system works quite well. However one can always support music schools and this is why I regularly go to visit and tell the kids something about music and the cello. And also to support the music teachers! In general, I think that the system of music schools in Germany functions very well.
When did you first meet Anne-Sophie Mutter?
I was fifteen years old when I first met her, very shortly after I went to the youth composition in Moscow – to the Tchaikovsky Young Musicians’ Competition. She heard that I won the first prize there and she invited me to play for her.
You won a scholarship for personal support from her Foundation – what form did that take?
It was quite diverse in many ways. First I played for her then she told me that she would like to support me. But there was always good communication between her as a supporter of my musical development and my ideas. She asked what I would like to do with master classes, for example. She suggested that I should play for Mstislav Rostropovich and organised that I could travel to France to play for him. After that she supported my lessons and master classes with him, and she took me to Paris so that I could try a cello. I played this instrument for several years. There were many players who received her support. For me it was really wonderful at that age.
What was it like, studying under Rostropovich?
I played the Russian repertoire for him. He wanted me to learn Britten also – the Britten Cello Symphony – and I played Shostakovich for him. I played Prokofiev’s Symphonia Concertante. Plus the general repertoire like the Dvořák concerto.
Both Shostakovich cello concertos were written for him. Was that an extraordinary insight?
It was. I felt that I was right there. Shostakovich was so interested in writing this piece for him. And then you are there, as a young cellist, and you can somehow take part in the history of music. For me it was an incredible experience. When I play the Shostakovich today, I always think of that moment. The opportunity to study with him was just incredible.
You also studied under Isserlis. Was that very different?
I was only fourteen and played for him in Prussia Cove where he was giving master classes. He is a very different musician. Very enthusiastic about many things and this is what at that time inspired me. His enthusiasm for Schumann, and the Romantic composers in general, was a great influence for me.
You cite Bach’s Cello Suites as being very important to you as an artist. Whose interpretations do you consider essential listening?
I like one in particular – but then of course there are the older ones like Casals. I grew up with that recording. He was the pioneer of this repertoire because he discovered them again and brought them back into the concert halls. But then more recently, I would say the Heinrich Schiff recording which I think is from the 80s. That is one of the recordings that comes to my mind. I was also studying with Heinrich Schiff in Vienna so that’s a recording that influenced me.
What was your first professional engagement?
That was a long time ago. I think it came after the competition in Moscow. One particular promoter in Germany asked me to play a European tour with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. That was my first big orchestra tour. It started from then. That was in 1993, one year after the competition.
Obviously you feel very passionately about the importance of awakening young people’s enthusiasm in music. How do you hope to make that happen?
I think just by the sheer experience of being present at schools. Just going there and telling the young children about classical music, the composers, why I chose the cello, how it is to live the life of a solo musician travelling. I see the curiosity of the children asking questions, they want to find out more about me in general. It just opens their minds, and hopefully also their hearts, to this wonderful music. It is just that experience – that you are right there – and then you invite the children to the rehearsal or concert afterwards and hopefully they will remember something. I actually get many letters after my visits saying that children have started playing the cello, piano or violin. Many children, I think, are sort of awakened after that.
Do you worry about the next generation of listeners and players and how they will come to classical music?
No, actually, I don’t worry at all because we have so many wonderful young players at the moment. If you look at universities and music schools, I think there are many more than 10 years ago, so I don’t think that we have to worry about that. Also the audiences in twenty years. There will always be an interest, and a love for going to concerts. That’s never going to die.
For your concerts with the ACO, you’re playing Vivaldi and Bloch. Do you think it is important for musicians nowadays to be able to embrace music across the whole of that time span?
I think it’s interesting that you have to somehow, like an actor, get into a different role. In music, it’s sort of finding a different musical language to express that music. With Vivaldi, of course, it’s the start of the concerto – Italy in the eighteenth century. Of course we have to know about the history and the instruments of the time, and then you can get closer to how maybe Vivaldi would have liked it to be played. It can only make you grow as a musician if you are interpreting that repertoire, and especially Baroque music because there are so many wonderful concertos and sonatas. I think it’s important to study and play that music.
What about the Bloch? They are beautiful pieces. Do you play them often?
I played them a couple of times with orchestras in Germany. I played it the last time with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. It is a piece that is so wonderful. It is something that expresses the voice of the cello in such a moving way. I think that Bloch wrote it in 1924, so yes, with the Vivaldi that is a big time span. It makes the journey more exciting.
You once played Shostakovich’s first concerto amplified at the Roskilde Rock Festival. How did that come about and did you make many classical music converts?
It came about because of the orchestra, the Tivoli Symphony, had to play one particular concert in this rock festival. They were asking what piece I would suggest for an open air setting in front of 10 000 people. I suggested the Shostakovich and with the amplification and the people there who had probably never heard Shostakovich before, it worked really well. I enjoyed the amplification and the fact that you sound maybe 100 times louder than usual. Hopefully it won some more interest for classical music. In the second half I stood with the audience and was talking to some people. They seemed to really enjoy the first half.
There is something really unique about Shostakovich and his ability to reach beyond the normal classical audience. Why do you think that is?
I think because his language on the surface seems very simple, but it has so many layers and so much underneath, and there is such dark power to the music. Really it reaches out to almost everyone. In a way it is the same with Bach’s music. It fits every human being. There’s nothing to hide from. It’s very pure and direct and that makes the music reach every human being.
Daniel Müller-Schott plays with Richard Tognetti and the ACO as part of the ACO2 Tour to Newcastle, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, June 13-26.