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Interview with Tatjana Vassiljeva

img  Tobias Fischer

Over your entire discography, you've maintained an interchanging rhythm of Solo and Duo constellations. Do you need this rhythm do keep things interesting for you or is this a mere coincidence?
It is a combination of both, really, and I have been lucky to have the opportunity to record pieces that I have been playing in concert for a number of years and that I have a strong affinity with. I have always had a strong interest in contemporary repertoire and after my first solo CD, which was dedicated to quite well known works, I was eager to explore these works by recent composers that I feel deserve a lasting place in the cello repertoire, and, at the same time, I hope bring them to a wider audience. Between these two CDs, I recorded works for cello and piano with a combination of popular works like the Schubert Arpegionne and the Debussy and Franck Sonatas with pieces by Dutilleux, Britten and Stravinsky before going right back in time to record the Bach Suites – surely the milestone for every cellist! – and the Alkan/Chopin Sonatas.
However, I have also recorded the Penderecki Second Concert in Warsaw for Naxos, although it has not been released yet - and have plans to do another concerto recording though I can’t say much about that now. For me the most important thing to consider when deciding the repertoire for a recording is what I want to say through music at that particular time. So it is not really a question of doing one solo cd then one duo cd etc. The main problem for me is that there is such a lot of repertoire that I love, feel close to and want to share that it is not always easy to choose! This is when it is good to work with my record company to decide – unfortunately and fortunately we cannot always do what we want all the time!

While you are working on a lot of world premieres, your latest two recordings are going back in time. Is there something to be gained for you as a performer by taking this bipolar approach?
Most definitely, I gain so much about how to approach contemporary music from playing composers such as Bach, Beethoven – as great music evolves organically, and by this I mean that it is never unrelated to what has come before it, we can always find a clin d’oeil or thread linking it and this is where we find the structure in which the emotion, phrasing and meaning of the piece is placed. At the same time, working on the techniques and colors of modern music helps expand both the technique of an instrumentalist and our imaginations so that when we revisit works – chamber music, concerti or solo ones - that we have played many times before, we come to them with new ideas and colors that might work… or might not! The important thing is never to be satisfied and constantly search for more.

This certainly applies to your latest release. One certainly expected albums dedicated to Chopin this year, after all, but perhaps not from a Cellist ...
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger - with whom I made the recording - and I often play the Chopin sonata in recital. It is so full of beautiful broad themes, with immense passion as well as a very delicate intimacy. Jean-Frédéric is so wonderful in Chopin that it is very natural for us to perform this together whenever we can.

Both pieces on your new album are dedicated to Auguste-Joseph Franchomme, which lends them a conceptual angle. What were your personal motivations to record them?
My main motivation to record these pieces was quite simply that they are both great works of the cello repertoire. That in itself is enough reason for me! When we decided to record the Chopin Sonata, Rene Martin (the founder of MIRARE) suggested combining it with the Alkan. I must admit, that this was an amazing discovery for me as Alkan is not as well known in Russia or Germany as he is in France. The day after Rene mentioned it, I searched everywhere to find the music and the first time I played through it could not believe that it had been hidden from me for so long and know we had to record them together!

Your previous project was a massive double album. With less material to perform, were things easier on you this time around in a way?
Each project is different and there are always issues to be solved. From an artistic point of view recording the Bach was straightforward from the point of view that I could do exactly how I wanted without having to discuss with anyone else, and I have been playing these pieces for so many years I really felt that I had reached the point that I knew what I wanted to say… at that moment! The Bach Suites are so personal and the interpretation can depend on so many things – external and internal to the artist - that I don’t say that I will play the same way in 10 years but I felt very strongly that I wanted a record of how I felt about then at that particular time. The process is different recording by yourself because you are focused on only your music which is extremely intense. Sometimes it would be a shock to find I had done one complete take of a whole suite when I thought that only five minutes had passed. Recording with Jean-Frédéric, the thing that was most difficult was the placing of the piano and cello to achieve the best balance. It seems unbelievable now but I was actually sitting behind him and most of the time, unless I twisted completely round we could not see each other! Luckily we seem to have a kind of telepathy so that it is not necessary for us to have eye contact to be able to breathe together.

What makes your and Jean-Frédéric's musical personalities such a “telepathic” fit from your point of view?
It is difficult to say why it works with some people and not with others, even though one can admire their playing immensely. Somehow with Jean-Frédéric it works and even when we set aside a couple of days to rehearse a new program, most of the work is usually mainly finished after an hour or two and it just remains for us to play through once or twice to feel confident. I can’t explain exactly but we seem to have the same approach to music: we are both very loyal to the score and I think we are both romantic in our playing without being gratuitous or doing things just for effect.

Very different pieces can be dedicated to the same person. Still, do you feel as though through the dedication to Franchomme, there is something that musically connects the Chopin piece with the Alkan? Did studying the material necessarily also involve studying the life and technique of Franchomme?
I did not feel it necessary to go into the details of the life of Franchomme, although I do know that he was a very dear friend of Chopin, especially. And from the writing of the sonatas, it is clear that he must have been an exceptionally fine cellist of the period – Alkan is famous for writing virtuosic piano music but his cello writing is not for beginners either.  Also, like the Chopin, the sonata is on such a huge scale it needs a lot of stamina to get to the end in one piece.

The press release by Mirar refers to Alkan's Sonata as the most ambitious piece for this instrumental combination in the romantic repertoire. Would you concur?

It is certainly a huge work and very ambitious in its scale and harmony. It was written a few years – around 8 years, I think - before Brahms wrote his E minor sonata but seems to me to be more exploratory in terms of unexpected harmonic progressions and some unusual rhythmic passages that sound very ‘modern’ in the context of the piece’s romantic and very lyrical melodies. I think it shows more of a free spirit, whereas the Brahms shows more of a sense of classical balance and structural perfection… we all know that Brahms was very critical and perfectionist.

Alkan and Chopin knew each other. What, do you feel, do these pieces say about the relationship between these two outstanding artists and their individual personalities?
I really don’t know what kind of person Alkan was, but from this music I can guess that he was quite adventurous and free spirited. Also he seems to have a good sense of humor and been a lot of fun, judging from the final ‘Saltarella’ movement. The Chopin sonata is very complex and more reflective, even darker, perhaps because Chopin was suffering from ill health towards the end of his life when he composed this piece.

From your point of view, do you feel as though Chopin approached the Cello part as someone with tangible knowledge of the specialties of the instrument or rather from his perspective as a Pianist?
I think the sonata is easily recognizable as Chopin, but I would not say that the cello part is written by him from his perspective as a pianist. It is written so it is falls easily under the hands, so perhaps he had some advice from Franchomme… it is impossible to say.

Alkan, too, rarely wrote for anything other than the Piano. The Sonata is his only piece for Cello – do you sometimes wonder what other exciting pieces he could have written in this vein if he had taken on the assignment more often?

Of course! Too few composers of this time composed for cello and when we have such an innovative and exciting a piece like this which is a ‘one off’ it is impossible not to be disappointed that he did not continue, especially when you think that he went on to live such a long life.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Felix Broede

Tatjana Vassiljeva Discography:
Cello Recital/ w. Yumiko Urabe (Naxos) 2002
Dramatic Games (Musidisc) 2003
Schubert-Franck-Stravinsky/ w. Pascal Godart (Musidisc) 2004
Violoncelle Solo (Accord) 2007
Bach Six Suites pour Violoncelle (Mirare) 2009
Chopin & Alkan (Mirare) 2010

Tatjana Vassiljeva

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