Karine Georgian cellist

Musings and interviews:
Interviewed by Ariana Todes for The Strad, January 2011

Karine Georgian remembers an intense period of study with Rostropovitch

The first conscious influence on me was my father Armen Georgian. I studied with him from the age of 5 to 18: he was my first teacher and a huge influence. There was nothing he did not know about the instrument. He was a great cellist but didn’t have the opportunity in Soviet times, or really the ambition, to carve out an international career. He had studied with Brandukov, a close friend of Rachmaninoff’s and dedicatee of the Cello Sonata, one of the big names in the Russian cello school. I had lessons with my father every single day, and I had to practise. Even if I was not feeling well it didn’t mean that I didn’t practise. Summer holidays, away from home, I still had to practise. I wasn’t always thrilled by this process but gradually I came to realise that was how it had to be. Now I torture my own students in the same way.

After my father, my main influence was Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom I studied for seven years. When I first came to play to him I brought Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto. This was my audition piece for the Moscow Conservatoire, where Rostropovich taught, but first of all I had to play for him. Trembling, I went to his flat in Moscow. It was strange to see him face to face after seeing him on stage. He offered me a snack because he said that before I played I must eat something. There was a very big table and a plate on which was what I thought was a fried egg that he said he’d cooked himself. I tried to eat it but couldn’t — it was made of rubber! You can imagine the effect on me — I didn’t know such things even existed. He was travelling all over the world at the time and had brought back a few toys like this from America — all sorts of things, including a giant rubber hammer with which he enjoyed frightening people. With me I don’t know what his impulse was: perhaps to make me feel at ease? If so it didn’t work: I was completely overcome. But he enjoyed the whole thing enormously — it was a good joke. He liked challenging people: he wanted to see how one would behave in a situation like that. Then, after I’d played the second movement of the Prokofiev, he gave me some exercises — playing double-stops two against three — to see how quick my reactions were and how flexible my mind was. I might have spent a lot of time preparing the Prokofiev, but how would I react when asked to do something I hadn’t done before?

In lessons he worked a lot on the production and projection of sound. Sometimes in a lesson he would look at you and it was just like being emotionally X-rayed: he was seeing straight into the heart of your personality. He opened doors emotionally and psychologically for you as a performer, as a person, on top of what he gave you as a musician. It was all done to release your potential.

In those years Russia had a rigidly structured system of education, very controlled — rules had to be followed. But the atmosphere in his class was quite different. I remember once I played the E minor Brahms Sonata. He was teaching from the piano, as often, and said, ‘Rukha,’ (short for ‘starukha’ — old woman — which is what he called me all my life, from the age of 18), ‘you haven’t shed enough tears in your life.’ That was one of the phrases that stuck — now I know how right he was. When you performed he made you put into it everything you had ever experienced in your life, as he did. He never spared himself, either on stage or off. Before I went to Rostropovich I had been in the Gnessin Institute and he used to tease me that too much of my playing consisted of ‘Gnessinskie strishochky’ — over-careful, over-polished bow strokes, not free enough emotionally. ‘Let it all hang out,’ he would shout.

I remember in particular concerts he gave in the Great Hall of the conservatoire, the Prokofiev Symphony—Concerto, Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, and the first performance of the Second Concerto at which Shostakovich himself was, unforgettably, present. Whenever I heard him, what struck me as irresistibly special about his playing was its unsurpassed brilliance and projection, its enormous expressivity and the sheer volume of his sound, as well as his palette of colours. He would go on stage and start to play, and not for a second would he let you go until the end of the piece. He would hold the attention of the audience every moment he was on stage. He tried to instil that feeling in his students as well: you had to give everything on stage. He had a sheer power in projecting his sound — I can’t think of anyone who can compare. When you look at his playing you see the perfection of his relationship with the cello, especially the freedom of his right arm, which was a part of the work we did with him. Early on he also gave me several miniature pieces in order to work on different kinds of vibrato. When I came to him I didn’t have enough volume or a big enough palette of colours.

Jacqueline du Pré came to study with Rostropovich for half a year. One of her lessons was on the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto and he treated her more as a colleague than as a student. He sat at the piano when she played the second movement and it was a collaborative process of creation. You could almost see the electricity between them, the intensity of their communication. For the rest of us students it was as if she came from a different world — her personality and her playing. Because of the way we had grown up, we were subject to rules from very early on, whether we realised it or not. But she had a natural sense of freedom which she conveyed whenever she played. At student parties she would start to dance and her expression without the cello was the same as with it — of joy and freedom. I will never forget Haydn’s C major Concerto in the Great Hall at the conservatoire — it was absolutely packed. I still remember the performance for its expressivity, the way she was on stage, and her absolute sense of originality — like nothing we’d heard before. That freshness of approach and freedom of expression was something that started to grow in me from seeing and hearing her.

Another strong impression was the first time I heard Pierre Fournier in Moscow. His playing was very aristocratic, with a wonderful sound and incredible emotional intensity. I still remember his Bach Sixth Suite in the Great Hall and my wishing then that some day in my life I would be able to do something like that.

Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, who died in 1963, was a great name on the Russian horizon. I heard him play in the trio he had with Oistrakh and Oborin. When we were preparing for the Tchaikovsky competition we were eligible to get an instrument from the state collection; Rostropovich applied for one for me, and I got the beautiful Rugeri that had been Knushevitsky’s instrument. When I came to play through my competition repertoire to Rostropovich on it, there was a moment of silence after which he said, ‘Rukha — you will have to take this instrument back to the collection. If you’re going to play it you should sound better than Knushevitsky, and you don’t.’ So I played on my Czech Vitacek. It was, I must say, quite difficult to sound better than Knushevitsky, because there was something unique in his sound that immediately made you melt — you can still hear it on his recordings. I would also mention Miklos Perényi because of the total integrity of his personality, playing and teaching. He is utterly true to the music and to himself.

Reprinted by kind permission of The Strad. First published in Cello Heroes 2011. Please see http://www.orpheusmusicshop.com/category-52/SL268.html for an opportunity to purchase this outstandingly interesting survey of many of today’s leading cellists.