Interview: Mischa Maisky

The acclaimed cellist is ‘perversely grateful’ for his incarceration in a labour camp

By Tim Stein, January 14, 2011
Mischa Maisky was nicknamed “Rostropovich of the future” on his debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic

Mischa Maisky was nicknamed “Rostropovich of the future” on his debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic

'I wasn't supposed to have become a musician," says the 63-year-old Latvian-born cellist, Mischa Maisky, in a thick Baltic accent. "With two older siblings already studying music, my mother wanted me to be 'normal'."

In fact, he was anything but. "I was a hyper-active child, running around all the time playing football and never sitting still for a moment, so it came as a great surprise when I suddenly announced I wanted to play the cello."

At what age did he start playing? "The same year I quit smoking," he laughs. "Yes, very late. I started smoking at five and a half, but I quit when I was eight." Thankfully he has continued his playing, though he has not smoked since.

Like most musically-gifted Latvian children his age, the young Maisky started musical school in Riga, before he moved to a boarding school in Leningrad at the age of 14, winning the National Cello Competition thre years later.

While his debut, at 17, with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra earned him the nickname "Rostropovich [the late, great Russian cellist] of the future", it was in 1966, as prize-winner of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, that he really started getting noticed. He entered the famous Moscow Conservatoire to study with Rostropovich and was quickly taken under the great musician's wing.


Born: Riga, January 1948
Career: Studied with Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow. Debut at Carnegie Hall in 1973. Performs all over the world. Has made over 40 records.
Personal life: mprisoned in a labour camp in 1970. On release emigrated to Israel. Now lives in Belgium with wife and two young children. Has two grown-up children, both musicians, from a previous marriage

"After my father died at an early age, Rostropovich basically became not only a wonderful teacher but a second father to me," he says.

Soon he was giving concerts around the Soviet Union and beginning to make a name for himself. Things were dramatically cut short, however, when his sister emigrated to Israel. "This was the beginning of major problems in my life. All my concerts were cancelled and I wasn't allowed to travel abroad," he says. "Eventually, on some bogus charge, I was arrested and sent to jail."

He spent a total of 18 months in a labour camp, and an additional two in a mental hospital. "For almost two years I practically never even saw my cello, much less played it," he recalls.

The painful memories clearly still run deep. "Yes, of course it was a very difficult time for me. But at the same time, I really mean it when I say that I don't regret what happened to me. In a perverse way, I am even grateful. Even though I never received my diploma from the Moscow Conservatoire because of my imprisonment, I actually believe I got a complete life education instead. The whole experience was very important for my personality as a musician".

Maisky settled briefly in Israel in 1972, and the country is still close to his heart. "My pianist sister still lives there with her family; I have lots of relatives there; I still have an Israeli passport and consider myself an Israeli," he says proudly. Israel allowed him to rebuild his career by playing concerts all over the country.

His win at the Gaspar Cassado International Cello Competition in Florence in 1973, the same year he made his debut at New York's famous Carnegie Hall, and his constant travelling meant that he needed a more "practical base", so he moved to Belgium, where he now lives with his "new young family", his Italian wife Evelyn, and their two young children.

Though he plays less frequently in the United States than elsewhere, it is the country where he began lessons with Gregor Piatigorsky, the legendary Russian-Jewish teacher (Maisky is the only cellist to have studied both with Rostropovich and Piatigorsky), and it is where he found the beloved cello on which he has been playing for over 30 years.

"After the Carnegie Hall concert, a gentleman came up to me and told me that his 94-year-old uncle, an amateur cellist, had this beautiful Italian cello that he couldn't really play anymore. His uncle thought it should go to a talented youngster rather than a dealer or an orchestral player."

A meeting was quickly arranged and Maisky spent several hours playing for the old man on what turned out to be a rare 18th-century Montagnana cello, one of the finest cellos ever made.

"When I left him," Maisky says, "he had tears rolling down his cheeks saying: 'Now I can die peacefully, knowing that someone is going to play concerts so plenty of people will enjoy it'.

"He said he would have loved to have been able to offer it to me for free, but because he wanted to leave something for his much younger wife, sold it to me at a 'symbolic' price. But I had no money at all, only debts, and couldn't afford it."

So with the help of the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation, money was raised to purchase the cello and, several years later, with the help of a loan from the Dresdner bank in Germany, the cellist was able to buy it back from the Foundation. Now, having paid off the loan himself, Maisky owns it outright.

"First we fell in love. Then we had a passionate affair. Then, when I bought it from the Foundation we got engaged. But when I bought it from the bank we were married for life," he laughs.

Maisky may not have meant to have turned out as a musician, but he is certainly one of the busiest and best, with concerts all over the world and more that 40 recordings to his name.

"Whatever you do in life," he says, "one should try to do it exceptionally well. For me quality is always more important than quantity, which is why I don't conduct or teach."

So when a student comes backstage and asks him to teach them, what does he say?

"You heard my concert. I just did teach you," and Maisky laughs again.

Mischa Maisky performs Dvorak's cello concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, January 17. Tel: 0844 875 0073

Last updated: 2:54pm, August 28 2014