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Mischa Maisky: ‘Bach is turning in his grave’

Mischa Maisky Cello Masterclass

Mischa Maisky challenged the traditional notion of authenticity in his masterclass at the Amsterdam Cello Biënnale

If any classical musician deserves their own chat show, it’s Mischa Maisky. I only arrived in Amsterdam in time for the second half of his Sunday masterclass for the Cello Biënnale, but he was in full flow with jokes and stories about the great musicians he has known and the meaning of music. His most common phrase was, ‘but that’s another story’, and he joked that his first wife left him because he told too many stories. For the young cellist who had performed for him, there may not have been much by way of specific feedback, but there were some relevant nuggets for her, plenty for the audience to learn from and an interesting discussion on the importance of authenticity in music.

One of the points Maisky tried to get across to the student was about attention to detail: ‘It’s just the little things – but then again, that’s the point. Painters try so many little things. When you look at a big painting you don’t see all the details that make it come to life. Then you read a book and a whole page focuses just on how he painted the hand. Small details are important because they bring music to life.’

It’s the details that reveal the genius, as illustrated by one story. Apparently Prokofiev didn’t like Brahms and Maisky told a story about Rostropovich studying composition with the great composer, and spending some time in his country house. Prokofiev gave him an eight-bar exercise to complete and Rostropovich was reluctant to finish it and show it to him. When he finally did, Prokofiev looked at it and said, ‘I think you might be even less talented than Brahms.’ Prokofiev leaned over, changed just a few details, demonstrating his great genius to the cellist, and from then on Rostropovich gave up composition.

And sometimes players have to make the details obvious, as Maisky explained: ‘I’m criticised for exaggerating, but I do it on purpose. I don’t play for people who know the music – I imagine the people who are listening to it for the first time. You have to guide them, to show them every change, every decoration. If you try to show 120 per cent maybe they’ll get 75 per cent. But if you only try 90 per cent they won’t get enough. But I might be wrong.’

In his typically lateral-thinking style, this led to a discussion about the nature of certainty: ‘Beware of people who know the truth.’ He quoted Einstein, who set his students questions for their examinations. When they were the same two years running, one student said to him, ‘But all the questions are the same as last year,’ and Einstein replied, ‘Yes, but all the answers are different.’

Inevitably this brought up the question of how to play Bach, and Maisky’s views on authenticity. ‘Music is like a religion and for cellists the Six Suites are like the bible, the book of books. There are many translations and also many interpretations. The greater the music, the more ways it can be played. We don’t need 55 different recordings of Prokofiev sonatas, but we do of Bach Suites.’ He described having 32 versions of the Bach and making a minidisc file lining up the different versions of each movement, discovering, ‘It’s wonderful how differently they can be played.’

There is one rule, though: ‘Great music can never be ugly or boring. If it is then something’s wrong. Apart from that, anything goes.’ Supporting a blog I wrote on the subject, he defined his use of the word 'authentic': ‘Whatever comes from a musician’s heart is authentic. That’s what counts – authenticity of emotions.’ He also made the distinction between disagreement and disrespect: ‘I listen to all sorts of recordings I don’t agree with.’

As to players who try to perform Bach as it might have been played in Bach’s day (which he referred to as 'vegetarianism'): ‘It is totally against Bach’s mentality. Great musicians are ahead of their time; they’re progressive. Bach was not appreciated in his lifetime – it took a hundred years after his death for Mendelssohn to discover him. Bach was ahead of his time, and so curious about the cello, experimenting with what was possible. If Tourte had invented the modern bow a hundred years earlier, Bach would have been the first to use it. I think Bach is turning in his grave that we’re going back 300 years in our playing.’

Maisky posed the question: if Bach were alive today and given the choice of his oratorios being performed by a small orchestra or by the New York Philharmonic, what would he choose? We’ll never know, so it’s open to discussion how to play his music. Maisky told the story of Otto Klemperer, who, when someone told him that Bach wouldn’t have used vibrato, replied, ‘What, 20 children and no vibrato?’ So, Bach was a real, fully dimensional man: ‘He wasn’t just an intellectual composer without feelings. He loved beer, he had a bad temper. We shouldn’t try to pull him down, put him in a frame and label him. He was the greatest romantic composer.’ And finally, Maisky quoted Casals, whom he met shortly before the end of his life. They spent three hours together and Casals told him about Bach: ‘There is no emotion known to humans that is not in Bach. It’s just a matter of digging deep enough and finding it.’

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