Mischa Maisky © Hideki Shiozawa
Mischa Maisky
© Hideki Shiozawa

“People tell me that you only turn 70 once in your life, and I always respond that you also only turn 69 or 71 once. It’s only a number!” Mischa Maisky certainly seems to have no intention of slowing down, commemorating his 70th birthday year with a series of concerto, recital and chamber music tours around the globe with an energy and exuberance of a musician a third his age. A sure highlight of the year, though, will come in June, when he will travel to Turkey as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Istanbul Music Festival. “I was somewhat surprised,” Maisky laughs. “Usually these lifetime achievement awards are given to people before they disappear, and I am planning to stay around for a long time!”

Born in Riga in what was then part of the Soviet Union, Maisky began his studies in Riga and Leningrad. At 18, he was a prizewinner in the Tchaikovsky Competition and caught the eye (or rather, ear) of jury member Mstislav Rostropovich. He continued his studies with Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory, but never finished due to being imprisoned in a labour camp for 18 months. “It was of course very difficult and traumatic,” he explains. “But at the same time I am sincerely grateful for having had this experience because I think I received a much more complete life education. I believe that one should always try to see the positive element in things, so I never regret anything!” He then resettled in Israel after not having played the cello for two years, a process he refers to as “starting his second life”. Within the next two years, though, he won the Cassadó Competition, made his Carnegie Hall debut and continued his studies with Gregor Piatigorsky, becoming the only cellist to have studied with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky. Of this experience, he comments that the two legendary cellists “were not just two of the greatest cellists, but also legendary teachers and personalities as well.”

Maisky has long had an association with the Istanbul Music Festival, first appearing there in recital in 1977 and returning many times since. Istanbul has always had a great draw, he explains, “as it is one of the most exciting spots in the world, and I always have great contact with the audience which for me is the most important inspiration.” It is notable that the award, according to the festival’s website, is granted to artists “who have made significant contributions to our classical music heritage and whose projects reveal the unifying power of music”. Having been born in the Soviet Union and having since lived in Israel, America and Belgium, does he feel a kinship with the cosmopolitan nature of the city? “I love to travel, to see different kinds of places,” he explains. “This year in particular I’ll travel a lot – perhaps a little bit too much!”

© Eric Larrayadieu
© Eric Larrayadieu

To commemorate this award, Maisky will perform two concerts in Istanbul – in the first of which he will join the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra in works by Haydn and Tchaikovsky. To perform the Haydn C major and Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, two of the most agile pieces in the repertoire – how does he do it? “It’s not easy,” he laughs. “But it’s all relative. Rostropovich once played 30 concertos within 18 days at Carnegie Hall – this is totally unimaginable!” Maisky has long been associated with both of these works, particularly his now-legendary recordings of the Haydn concertos. How has his interpretation of these works changed? “My interpretations have never had a revolution,” he explains. “More of an evolution. For instance, when I recorded the Bach Cello Suites for the second time, it was because I heard my first recording in a shop and barely recognized it! There is a certain maturity that comes with age, and sometimes in strange ways.” The Haydn poses a very particular set of challenges, though, “because it’s a very youthful piece. I was recently listening to all of the fantastic young cellists playing in competitions, and they played this concerto so fantastically well that I said to my wife ‘you know, maybe I should retire!’ But then when I listened to them playing other concertos in the finals, I reconsidered this – every age has its own viewpoint and qualities, let’s say.” 

For the second concert, Maisky will be joined by his children Lily and Sascha in chamber works by Shostakovich, Mahler and Schumann. To perform with his children is “a dream come true – as unbelievable as it is to share the stage with incredible musicians like Martha Argerich or Radu Lupu or Gidon Kremer. To make music with your children is something I cannot even describe.” Was this a mere coincidence, or was it part of a bigger plan? “I was the third child in my family, and my older sister was a pianist and my brother started as a violinist,” he comments. “And when it was my turn I insisted on the cello. This family trio never happened, but maybe because of this it was always at the back of my mind to have a family trio with my children!” 

Maisky’s relationship with his children relates directly to the immense catalogue of recordings he has amassed. “When my first child was born, I came up with the idea of recording 18 slow pieces and dedicating it to her. And then I did a similar CD for my second child, and then it became tradition! Recently though, I realised that it is much faster to make children than CDs, so the last two are still waiting for their recordings!” An early adopter of novel recording technologies, his latest recording released this summer uses entirely multitrack methods. “I was always frustrated as a cello soloist to not be able to play any music by Mahler. So I had this crazy idea to record the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony – I recorded it on multitrack, playing with myself!”

© Kasskara | Deutsche Grammophon
© Kasskara | Deutsche Grammophon

After having recorded all of the major cello repertoire, sometimes more than once, how does he pick what repertoire to record next? “I’m not implying that the cello repertoire is too small – I am never bored playing the Bach suites, for instance, or the Dvořák concerto. Nevertheless, shorter pieces and transcriptions can help people discover and enjoy some music which they otherwise will not hear, and I try to only arrange the music that shows the best qualities of the cello as an instrument, and hopefully my best qualities as well.” Regarding the controversy over arranging music for other instruments, he argues that “most of the great composers were more open-minded in this respect than many people today. For example, Rachmaninov composed his Vocalise in C sharp minor, but when he arranged it for orchestra he changed it into E minor. In Russia, we used to play it in C sharp, but when I discovered the E minor version I discovered that it sounded better, and I am sure that Rachmaninov made this change because he found the same!”

So at age 70, what comes next? “There are plenty of things I will never be able to do, because unfortunately there are only 24 hours a day! My youngest daughter is three years old, my youngest son is five, so I have certain responsibilities and obligations to stay healthy and full of energy. I think as artists, we have certain obligations as well – the most important is to figure out what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are, and not to do something that you cannot do well enough. This is the reason I don’t conduct, I don’t teach in the conventional sense of the word, I don’t play certain repertoire which I don’t feel I can do justice. Perhaps I don’t do many things I would love to do, but for me quality is more important than quantity. This is why I try to stick to doing what I do best!”


See details for Mischa Maisky’s performances at Istanbul Music Festival.

This article was sponsored by Istanbul Music Festival.