How Bach pushed me to the limit, by Maxim Rysanov

Maxim RysanovThu 10th April 2014

Playing Bach's Cello Suites on the viola was 'my Everest'...

I like breaking my own rules, and setting myself impossible challenges. So when I came to record my second disc of Bach's Cello Suites transcribed for viola (Nos 2, 3 and 6), I made a decision to perform the Sixth Suite in the original key of D major. Viola players usually play it a fifth lower – in G – because otherwise it’s almost impossibly stratospheric. But I think that D major brings a special colour to the piece. Violas at the top of their register sound incredibly beautiful: it’s like sitting on top of a mountain where the air is clearer and thinner, and the silence is so powerful it makes your ears start to buzz. So D major it had to be. But when I opened the score and actually looked at the notes, I almost gave up then and there. It was just too difficult. I put the music away and tried to forget about it. But the idea kept nagging at me and drawing me back, so eventually I knew I’d have to make the attempt or die trying. It was to be my Everest, in more ways than one.

When I started work on it, I had to push my technique to its very limits. In Russia we were taught a special way of reaching high notes, with which viola players in the UK are not very familiar. The left thumb comes right out from behind the neck of the viola and slides along the fingerboard, thus allowing the fingers to reach the higher octaves. The elbow moves out much further too. I drew on all the resources of this ‘Russian technique’ to conquer the highest passages of the music.

We were also taught in Russia to think of Bach in terms of long sustained lines, and to imagine his music like the sound of an organ. The idea was to create an impression of something cosmic, something global. That’s quite different from, say, a current 'historically-informed' style. I don’t belong to either school. I can’t call myself a Baroque specialist and I don’t play Bach in the way I was taught in Russia: instead, I’ve developed my own approach from many influences. I like to think of myself as (pace Freddie Mercury) a Great Pretender.

I performed the Sixth Suite in recital several times before going into the studio, and on each of those occasions I made a basic recording on my phone. I wouldn’t normally do that: sometimes I let myself go, emotionally speaking, in a live concert, and although that can be artistically convincing, it can also lead to technical imperfections. But because I knew this was to be a very special CD - the first recording of the Sixth Suite in its original key - I took the whole project intensely seriously, and forced myself to listen to my live performances while I was in my car. I was changing fingerings, bowings and shifts all the time.

I then went to Sweden - to an isolated church by the side of a lake - to record the piece. It was beautiful - almost like being alone with Bach.

After I’d made the recording, it then became easier - in my head, at least - to perform the suite live. I found that the structure became more transparent. Rather like the hero of The Matrix, I started seeing the ‘code’ a little bit clearer. But technically, it was as demanding as ever. It’s still by far the most challenging piece in my repertoire.

But the challenges have brought their rewards. I’ve learned that if you think something’s impossible, it’s not true. Everest is there to be conquered. You just need time - and dedication.

Maxim Rysanov's recording of Bach's Cello Suites Nos 2, 3 and 6 (on BIS) is out now. Follow the links: Buy from Amazon / Download from iTunes

Maxim Rysanov - recommended recordings

Works for viola and piano by Brahms, Bridge, Enescu, Franck, Glinka and Tabakova

Maxim Rysanov va Evelyn Chang pf (Avie)

'One feels that Maxim Rysanov has a very special relationship with his Guadagnini viola, delighting in bringing out the particular qualities of its different registers - husky lower notes, brilliant high ones which, however, retain weight and intensity...' Read review

Kancheli Styx Tavener The Myrrh-Bearer

Maxim Rysanov va Rihards Zalupe perc Kamer Choir; Latvia State Choir; Liepaja Symphony Orchestra / Maris Sirmais (Onyx)

'Here is a disc to blow the mind of anyone already in tune with these composers, and possibly one that may even lead a few sceptics towards a Damascene conversion...' Read review

Maxim Rysanov

Maxim Rysanov is a British-Ukrainian viola player and conductor. His latest CD of Bach Suites is now available on the BIS label. He performs with the Britten Sinfonia at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on May 23; Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden on May 24 and Milton Court, London on May 30.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014