One of the world’s most gifted cellists, Mischa Maisky, shares stories from his extraordinary life.

The legendary Latvian cellist, Mischa Maisky, talks to Limelight Editor Clive Paget about growing up in the Soviet Union, how Rostropovich became the father he’d lost, and why he counts himself the luckiest musician alive.

You grew up in Latvia – was it a musical upbringing?
Yes, very much so – even though my parents were not musicians. They never got the chance because they grew up between the two wars in very difficult circumstances in the Soviet Union. But they loved music and they were actually very gifted, particularly my father. It was their dream to give this chance to their children and my older brothers and sisters were studying already music already when I was born. So from that moment, or even nine months earlier, I was surrounded by music because it was all over the house. Actually by that time my mother said that she wanted to raise this one child normally, but in reality I was anything but normal.

So how old were you when you started to learn cello?
When people ask me that I always say it was quite late by the standards of the Soviet Union and I tell them it was the same year that I quit smoking. People always say, “really, so late?” and I say, “yes, I was eight-years-old!” That’s just an indication of what a strange child I was. I started experimenting with smoking at the age of five in the house, but I quit when I was eight and I never smoked again. I also remember playing cello but no one could believe it because I was a very hyperactive child – I couldn’t sit for more than five seconds in one spot and was always running and playing football. But I insisted and here we are quite a few years later (though I’m playing cello now more than football).

Growing up in the USSR, I suppose Rostropovich must have been something of a hero?
Absolutely. I’m sure for most of young cellists, but for me it was particularly so. I’d idolised him since I started playing cello. You know there are two coincidences: I started playing cello at the age of eight and so did he, and the very first real concerto that I played was the Saint-Saëns concerto at the age of 13 and by pure coincidence it was exactly the same with Rostropovich. And our patronymics are the same, which means both of our fathers have the same name – Leopold – and that is very unusual in Russia. For me it was some kind of sign. Even the fact that I have a slight speech impediment (in Russian I can’t roll my R’s the way Russians do) and it was the exactly the same with Rostropovich! So when my parents considered sending me to a therapist to fix when I was ten years old I refused because I’d heard an interview with Rostropovich on the radio and again for me this was a sign of some connection. It was rather strange, but an indication of how much I was mesmerised by his personality. Of course I was at every concert, whenever I had the chance, backstage asking for autographs and stuff, and it was the dream of my life to study with him.

So, for you, the bond with Rostropovich was especially close. Was it the same for him?
More than I could ever imagine. I lost my father suddenly, very early. He died from lung cancer because of smoking all his life, and Rostropovich, even though I wasn’t even his student at the time was extremely supportive and helpful on a personal level.  Eventually, when he was my teacher, I came to feel like he was like a second father to me. When we met for the last time in Germany we had long conversations and he told me the same thing. Basically he told me: “you know, you were like a son to me”. I imagine it was partly because one of his very few unfulfilled dreams was to have a son. He had two daughters but never managed to get a son. He was extremely envious when he saw a picture of my older son Sasha as a little boy. I saw his face change and he said, “oh, you have a son!” And then he saw a picture of my son with a little violin and he got very angry [laughs]. “What is this! Your son must play cello!” I said, “I’m playing cello myself. I want to play with my children so my daughter plays viola and my son plays violin. So now we have a family trio” [laughs]. But Rostropovich was obviously an incredibly important person in my life.

And what were his lessons like – did he have a special method?
He had quite a few students and was a very active teacher even though he was travelling so much that we didn’t see him that often. But I must say that when we did it was so intense and incredible. It may sound strange and hard to believe, but as great as he was as a cellist (which of course everyone knows) I think he was even greater as a teacher. His enormous sense of fantasy and his imagination, and his understanding of music – it was like his whole personality was just too large to put in a small wooden box! He couldn’t express himself only through the cello and that’s why he started conducting as well. But he was a phenomenal pianist. He played piano as well as he played the cello. In the class he never played anything on the cello. He was always sitting at the piano, but his lessons were just unbelievable and unforgettable.

You play Bloch’s Schelomo in Perth – is that a work you play often?
I wouldn’t say that I played it that regularly, because its not the kind of piece which is asked for all over the world. I did play it a few times in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, but it’s similar in a way to the Elgar concerto, which is played much more in England and other English speaking countries but not that much anywhere else. Schelomo is one of those very specific pieces, which objectively may not be the highest quality of music. It’s a very difficult piece for the orchestra and to be successful it needs a good conductor who knows and likes it very much. I was very lucky to play and recorded it with Bernstein who could get out of Israel Philharmonic sounds which no other conductor will ever be able to get, so it was an unforgettable experience. I had the privilege and pleasure to make music with Bernstein and in my opinion he was not only one of the greatest musicians, for me he was one of the greatest personalities that I ever met. I’m actually looking forward to playing it with Asher Fisch, with whom I made music before. He’s a wonderful conductor and I know he knows and loves and piece so I hope that people will enjoy it.

You also play Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote with WASO.
Yes, it’s a good combination because both pieces are very specific and have certain programs. Don Quixote is one of my very favourite pieces of music, like probably for every cellist. Rostropovich once told me ages ago, “you know any great cellist, no matter how sure of himself he might be, has moments of insecurity when he might consider for a moment that there might be some other cellist who plays Schumann, or Tchaikovsky, or even the Dvořák concerto better than me – but Don Quixote is mine!!” Its such a personal piece and it seems like every cellist thinks like this. I know Piatigorsky felt the same way. And certainly when I saw Paul Tortellier playing this piece – and basically falling down from his chair dying with the last note – I’m sure he felt the same way too.

In Sydney you are playing Bach Cello Suites. Are they a cornerstone for you?
Absolutely! I always say that if music is my religion, then the six Bach solo suites are like a bible. It’s like the book of books, which no matter how many years you play it and continue studying it you never come even close It’s an endless process and it changes all the time. It changes on a daily basis; it depends on how you feel; it depends on the weather, or the acoustics of the concert hall, or the audience. It’s never the same and that’s what makes it so exciting. It’s like trying to reach the horizon. Trying to reach perfection in music or any art is an illusion, and the closer you come the more it goes away. It’s only when you realise that you’ll never reach it that then there is no pressure. I’ve played then now for well over 50 years and I never for a second felt bored. I will never get tired of playing them and, for me, the most difficult program is when I play only Bach solo suites all evening. It requires so much concentration and energy in order to make people in the hall appreciate it. And it gives me great satisfaction when people come back stage and feel very excited about it – sometimes even surprised! Some people say, “oh, you play this music so wonderfully” And I always say, “wait a minute, wait a minute – the only thing I do to this music is I try as hard as I can to spoil it as little as possible” [laughs].

You’ve played with many, many musicians over the years. Do you feel that you’ve had a charmed life?
I’ve always said that I’m the luckiest cellist in the world. Naturally that is very subjective and anyone can claim this as long as he feels this way, but I do have a few objective reasons to claim this. Not only was I the only cellist who had this great chance to study with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky, as I mentioned before, I was very lucky to have played more than 20 concerts and made three recordings with the great Leonard Bernstein. I was incredibly lucky to meet Pablo Casals two months before he died. He was almost 97-years-old and playing for him and talking to him was of course an unforgettable experience. I’m very lucky to play for over 40 years now a beautiful Montagnana cello, which I found, or as I always say it found me, like in a fairy tale story. And I’m incredibly lucky in my partnerships in chamber music. I was still studying at the Moscow conservatory when in 1969 I played the complete Beethoven sonatas and variations with Radu Lupu who was finishing at the conservatory at the time. Later, when I came out, we continued to play and for me he’s one of the greatest and most unique musicians there is. But there have been many others of course. I’m afraid to even start mentioning them because I will inevitably forget somebody, but Martha Argerich is perhaps the most important partner. At the time I’ll be in Australia, we will celebrate exactly 40 years since we met and became very good close friends. Ever since, we have played relatively regularly and made quite a few recordings. Obviously she is one of the greatest pianists of all time so I’m incredibly lucky in this sense and I’m incredibly privileged to have had this chance.

Mischa Maisky performs with WASO and Asher Fisch, March 27 & 28, the QSO with Yan Pascal Tortelier, April 2, and Musica Viva Festival in Sydney, April 9-11


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You grew up in Latvia – was it a musical upbringing?
Yes, very much so – even though my parents were not musicians. They never got the chance because they grew up between the two wars in very difficult circumstances in the Soviet Union. But they loved music and they were actually very gifted, particularly my father. It was their dream to give this chance to their children and my older brothers and sisters were studying already music already when I was born. So from that moment, or even nine months earlier, I was surrounded by music because it was all over the house. Actually by that time my mother said that she wanted to raise this one child normally, but in reality I was anything but normal.

So how old were you when you started to learn cello?
When people ask me that I always say it was quite late by the standards of the Soviet Union and I tell them it was the same year that I quit smoking. People always say, “really, so late?” and I say, “yes, I was eight-years-old!” That’s just an indication of what a strange child I was. I started experimenting with smoking at the age of five in the house, but I quit when I was eight and I never smoked again. I also remember playing cello but no one could believe it because I was a very hyperactive child – I couldn’t sit for more than five seconds in one spot and was always running and playing football. But I insisted and here we are quite a few years later (though I’m playing cello now more than football).

Growing up in the USSR, I suppose Rostropovich must have been something of a hero?
Absolutely. I’m sure for most of young cellists, but for me it was particularly so. I’d idolised him since I started playing cello. You know there are two coincidences: I started playing cello at the age of eight and so did he, and the very first real concerto that I played was the Saint-Saëns concerto at the age of 13 and by pure coincidence it was exactly the same with Rostropovich. And our patronymics are the same, which means both of our fathers have the same name – Leopold – and that is very unusual in Russia. For me it was some kind of sign. Even the fact that I have a slight speech impediment (in Russian I can’t roll my R’s the way Russians do) and it was the exactly the same with Rostropovich! So when my parents considered sending me to a therapist to fix when I was ten years old I refused because I’d heard an interview with Rostropovich on the radio and again for me this was a sign of some connection. It was rather strange, but an indication of how much I was mesmerised by his personality. Of course I was at every concert, whenever I had the chance, backstage asking for autographs and stuff, and it was the dream of my life to study with him.

So, for you, the bond with Rostropovich was especially close. Was it the same for him?
More than I could ever imagine. I lost my father suddenly, very early. He died from lung cancer because of smoking all his life, and Rostropovich, even though I wasn’t even his student at the time was extremely supportive and helpful on a personal level.  Eventually, when he was my teacher, I came to feel like he was like a second father to me. When we met for the last time in Germany we had long conversations and he told me the same thing. Basically he told me: “you know, you were like a son to me”. I imagine it was partly because one of his very few unfulfilled dreams was to have a son. He had two daughters but never managed to get a son. He was extremely envious when he saw a picture of my older son Sasha as a little boy. I saw his face change and he said, “oh, you have a son!” And then he saw a picture of my son with a little violin and he got very angry [laughs]. “What is this! Your son must play cello!” I said, “I’m playing cello myself. I want to play with my children so my daughter plays viola and my son plays violin. So now we have a family trio” [laughs]. But Rostropovich was obviously an incredibly important person in my life.

And what were his lessons like – did he have a special method?
He had quite a few students and was a very active teacher even though he was travelling so much that we didn’t see him that often. But I must say that when we did it was so intense and incredible. It may sound strange and hard to believe, but as great as he was as a cellist (which of course everyone knows) I think he was even greater as a teacher. His enormous sense of fantasy and his imagination, and his understanding of music – it was like his whole personality was just too large to put in a small wooden box! He couldn’t express himself only through the cello and that’s why he started conducting as well. But he was a phenomenal pianist. He played piano as well as he played the cello. In the class he never played anything on the cello. He was always sitting at the piano, but his lessons were just unbelievable and unforgettable.

You play Bloch’s Schelomo in Perth – is that a work you play often?
I wouldn’t say that I played it that regularly, because its not the kind of piece which is asked for all over the world. I did play it a few times in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, but it’s similar in a way to the Elgar concerto, which is played much more in England and other English speaking countries but not that much anywhere else. Schelomo is one of those very specific pieces, which objectively may not be the highest quality of music. It’s a very difficult piece for the orchestra and to be successful it needs a good conductor who knows and likes it very much. I was very lucky to play and recorded it with Bernstein who could get out of Israel Philharmonic sounds which no other conductor will ever be able to get, so it was an unforgettable experience. I had the privilege and pleasure to make music with Bernstein and in my opinion he was not only one of the greatest musicians, for me he was one of the greatest personalities that I ever met. I’m actually looking forward to playing it with Asher Fisch, with whom I made music before. He’s a wonderful conductor and I know he knows and loves and piece so I hope that people will enjoy it.

You also play Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote with WASO.
Yes, it’s a good combination because both pieces are very specific and have certain programs. Don Quixote is one of my very favourite pieces of music, like probably for every cellist. Rostropovich once told me ages ago, “you know any great cellist, no matter how sure of himself he might be, has moments of insecurity when he might consider for a moment that there might be some other cellist who plays Schumann, or Tchaikovsky, or even the Dvořák concerto better than me – but Don Quixote is mine!!” Its such a personal piece and it seems like every cellist thinks like this. I know Piatigorsky felt the same way. And certainly when I saw Paul Tortellier playing this piece – and basically falling down from his chair dying with the last note – I’m sure he felt the same way too.

“If music is my religion, then the Bach solo suites are like a bible. But no matter how many years you play and study, you never come even close”

In Sydney you are playing Bach Cello Suites. Are they a cornerstone for you?
Absolutely! I always say that if music is my religion, then the six Bach solo suites are like a bible. It’s like the book of books, which no matter how many years you play it and continue studying it you never come even close It’s an endless process and it changes all the time. It changes on a daily basis; it depends on how you feel; it depends on the weather, or the acoustics of the concert hall, or the audience. It’s never the same and that’s what makes it so exciting. It’s like trying to reach the horizon. Trying to reach perfection in music or any art is an illusion, and the closer you come the more it goes away. It’s only when you realise that you’ll never reach it that then there is no pressure. I’ve played then now for well over 50 years and I never for a second felt bored. I will never get tired of playing them and, for me, the most difficult program is when I play only Bach solo suites all evening. It requires so much concentration and energy in order to make people in the hall appreciate it. And it gives me great satisfaction when people come back stage and feel very excited about it – sometimes even surprised! Some people say, “oh, you play this music so wonderfully” And I always say, “wait a minute, wait a minute – the only thing I do to this music is I try as hard as I can to spoil it as little as possible” [laughs].

You’ve played with many, many musicians over the years. Do you feel that you’ve had a charmed life?
I’ve always said that I’m the luckiest cellist in the world. Naturally that is very subjective and anyone can claim this as long as he feels this way, but I do have a few objective reasons to claim this. Not only was I the only cellist who had this great chance to study with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky, as I mentioned before, I was very lucky to have played more than 20 concerts and made three recordings with the great Leonard Bernstein. I was incredibly lucky to meet Pablo Casals two months before he died. He was almost 97-years-old and playing for him and talking to him was of course an unforgettable experience. I’m very lucky to play for over 40 years now a beautiful Montagnana cello, which I found, or as I always say it found me, like in a fairy tale story. And I’m incredibly lucky in my partnerships in chamber music. I was still studying at the Moscow conservatory when in 1969 I played the complete Beethoven sonatas and variations with Radu Lupu who was finishing at the conservatory at the time. Later, when I came out, we continued to play and for me he’s one of the greatest and most unique musicians there is. But there have been many others of course. I’m afraid to even start mentioning them because I will inevitably forget somebody, but Martha Argerich is perhaps the most important partner. At the time I’ll be in Australia, we will celebrate exactly 40 years since we met and became very good close friends. Ever since, we have played relatively regularly and made quite a few recordings. Obviously she is one of the greatest pianists of all time so I’m incredibly lucky in this sense and I’m incredibly privileged to have had this chance.