Interview by Tim Janof
Natalia Gutman was born in Kazan, Russia, and started to play the cello at the age of 5. In 1964, having already won the International Tchaikovsky Competition, she entered the Moscow Conservatory to study with Mstislav Rostropovich. Her First Prize in the 1967 Munich ARD Competition marked the beginning of her international career. Since then she has performed with the leading orchestras of the world, and with conductors such as Sawallisch, Muti, Abbado, Haitink, Svetlanov, Temirkanov, Celibidache, and Masur. She regularly appears with the most important summer festivals in Europe.
Oleg Kagan and Sviatislov Richter were among Ms. Gutman’s regular chamber music partners until their recent deaths. Richter once expressed his admiration for her by saying, “ she is an incarnation of truthfulness in music.” She continues to collaborate with Martha Argerich and Mischa Maisky, as on her latest CD’s by EMI Classics of the complete Schumann chamber music, and also with artists such as Eliso Virsaladze, Yuri Bashmet, and Alexij Lubimov.
The complete solo Bach Suites have been presented by Ms. Gutman in Berlin, Munich, Madrid, and Barcelona. She has premiered many contemporary works, including two — a sonata and his first cello concerto — dedicated to her by Alfred Schnittke. Her recordings include the two Shostakovich Concerti with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov for RCA/BMG-Ariola, for EMI Classics the Dvorak Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Wolfgang Sawallisch, and the Schumann and Schnittke Concerti with the London Philharmonic conducted by Kurt Masur. She also records frequently for Life Classics.
Each July Ms. Gutman invites her musician friends to the International Musikfest at the Tegernsee in the Bavarian Alps, which she founded in 1990 and dedicated to the memory of Oleg Kagan.
TJ: You studied with two members of your family, your stepfather and your grandfather.
NG: Yes. My first teacher was my stepfather — Sapozhnikov — who was a famous Russian pedagogue; he published many scores. I also studied with my grandfather for four years. He was a violinist and had studied with Leopold Auer. Auer also taught Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman.
TJ: When you went to study with Galina Kosolupova at age 18, did she have to undo your stepfather’s teachings?
NG: No, both my stepfather and Kosolupova were students of Simon Kosolupov, so they had similar ideas.
When I began my studies with Kosolupova, I both loved her and feared her. My musical outlook had already been strongly developed by my grandfather and I idolized his ideas, so Kosolupova and I did not always agree on how music should be played. I was very young at the time.
TJ: Did Kosolupova make you do lots of technical work, like playing scales and etudes?
NG: She did in the beginning but realized that my technique had already been pretty well established. My stepfather had run me through lots of scales and etudes during my first three years of study, as did my grandfather. Of course, one continues to enrich one’s technique all one’s life, so I am still learning to this day.
Oddly enough, my grandfather, even though he was a violinist, taught me lots of technique too and he gave me a certain virtuosity. He had me play scales for two hours a day with all sorts of bowings and fingerings, which made scale practice very interesting and did great things for my facility. Because of him, I kind of belong to the Auer school.
TJ: You then studied with Rostropovich for four years. Did he primarily concentrate on musical issues, using copious amounts of imagery like he does in his master classes?
NG: Yes, he used the same teaching technique back then. Though my lessons with him were sporadic because he was often on tour, they were life changing moments for me. He has this genius-level intuition about what to say to each student. With me, he sensed that I was a bit tight, so he worked on freeing me up emotionally. He would do whatever he could think of to wake me up, including yell, in a nice way of course. He rarely demonstrated with his cello, however.
TJ: Did the Soviet government punish you for your association with Rostropovich?
NG: Yes. Rostropovich left the country in 1974, but things started to happen to me in 1970. The KGB did not allow me to leave the country, which meant that my international performing career was on hold for nine years.
TJ: Some people have wondered if Rostropovich is more interested in entertaining the audience than being faithful to the score.
NG: Rostropovich has everything that a musician could hope for. He has depth, profundity, creative artistry, intuition, and a personality that wins over audiences. He doesn’t worry about what the textbooks say about how to play a piece, and he doesn’t need to because he just intuitively understands what’s right in the moment. His ability to sell a piece to an audience is but one aspect of his personality. It would be a shame if somebody were to lose respect for this most profound of musicians because of this single attribute. Who else plays Shostakovich with his incredible depth or Don Quixote with such a sense of tragedy? If he is able to reach such artistic heights while also involving the audience, then so much the better.
TJ: Many of the twentieth century’s major cello works were written for Rostropovich. Do you find it intimidating to play these works, knowing that you are probably playing them differently than him?
NG: My goal is not to play like him, even though I love his playing. One should be familiar with his playing when studying the works of Shostakovich or Prokofiev, for instance, but one should refer to the score for answers, not his recordings. Rostropovich did not compose these works, so ultimately he’s just another performer.
TJ: In a master class at the RNCM Manchester Cello Festival three years ago, you told a student to not play everything with such a scratchy forte character in the first movement of the first Shostakovich Concerto. Do you find that people play Shostakovich’s music too harshly?
NG: Is that what I said? I really struggle in master classes because I don’t know who they are for. Is it for the student or for the audience? I don’t know how to tell jokes that the audience will love, and I’m not sure if a master class is the best place for a student to learn. I prefer a private situation when I teach.
Getting back to the Shostakovich, I believe that you shouldn’t sacrifice your sound just because the music has a certain percussive quality and is emotionally powerful. My biggest concern with this type of music is that students generally don’t put enough energy into it. But when they do so, they have to do it in a way that is still beautiful.
TJ: Is there such a thing as a “Russian sound?” Rostropovich is certainly known for having a big sound, but is he representative of a so-called “Russian School” of playing? Do we in the West understand the Russian character?
NG: If you had lived for at least a month in Russia during the Soviet Empire’s reign you would understand our character!
I don’t think that there is a sound that could be called uniquely Russian. The music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev require a big sound, but Bach requires an entirely different sound, as does Schubert, Debussy, and so on. Your sound should vary with the music you play. It should not be pre-determined by which country you come from.
TJ: What’s the music scene like in Russia today? Is there money for the Arts?
NG: Though this is a very difficult time, musical life is still quite vital. The Berlin Philharmonic has visited Moscow, the German embassy organized a recital in the memory of Schnittke a couple of years ago, and other fans, mostly European, sponsor musical events.
TJ: Did you collaborate with Schnittke when he wrote his first cello concerto for you?
NG: Yes. This was the first piece he wrote after his stroke. He had even been pronounced clinically dead at the time, but somehow he came back. Two months later he started working on the cello concerto, but he had to work on it in secret because his doctors had ordered him stop writing music until he had recovered sufficiently. His doctors did not understand that composing gave his life meaning; if he wasn’t writing he had no reason to live. I was truly honored when he asked if I would play his concerto, especially given the circumstances that surrounded the piece.
Schnittke also wrote a cello sonata for me. He had just written his third violin concerto for his great friend and my late husband, Oleg Kagan. He soon presented me with a cello sonata as a gift, which was a complete surprise because I had no idea that he was working on it.
TJ: He then wrote his second concerto for Rostropovich.
NG: Schnittke didn’t know Rostropovich personally at the time he wrote his first concerto. Once Rostropovich became familiar with Schnittke’s music, Rostropovich convinced him to write another concerto and to dedicate it to him.
TJ: I understand that you have changed your approach on how to play Bach.
NG: Yes, after listening to lots of recordings made by those in the Early Music movement, I realized that there was a lot that I didn’t understand about how music was played in the Baroque era. I used to play Bach with the same sort of expression that I used for Romantic and contemporary music, but then I began to realize that this was inappropriate. Baroque music is still emotional, but it must be conveyed in a very different manner, using very different expressive techniques. In recent decades, we have become much more familiar with how music may have sounded when Bach was alive.
In 1990 I began using a baroque bow when playing baroque music and I now have a 5-string cello that I use for the Sixth Suite. I have found a new range of expressive possibilities and articulations with my baroque bow. I don’t play with gut strings at this point because I’d need a different cello and I’d have to dedicate a significant part of my life in order to master it, but I’d like to think that I’m playing in a manner that is more authentically baroque than I did before. People keep asking me to record the Bach Suites, but I’m not ready yet, since I’m still learning many new things.
TJ: The baroque sound seems to still be unfamiliar to Rostropovich, judging by his 1995 recording of the Bach Suites.
NG: He would categorically deny this. He knows about it but he does not believe that one must strive to play in a baroque manner. He believes that you should bring Bach to our time, not go back to Bach’s time. I don’t want to play Bach in his way, but when I listen to him I deeply respect that he’s playing Bach with all his heart and that he does so with great conviction. Fortunately, there’s no right and wrong in music, so I can enjoy performances both by him and Anner Bylsma.
(Special thanks to David Tonkonogui for acting as an interpreter in this interview.)