Alexey, how did you first get interested in music and start to play?
I started playing the cello at the age of f. My father our brought a 1/8 size instrument, gave it to me and within a few weeks I had my first lesson with a professor. I have a musical family and I was constantly surrounded by music, so it was something very natural for me. I always recognised the significance of music, but my personal connection to this world developed at the age of 13-14. I could not go to sleep without listening to a movement from a Mahler Symphony or Daniil Shafran’s cello playing. At that time I started to go to concerts and theatres regularly by myself — that was key to my musical development and continues to play an important role.
Which teachers, musicians and/or role models have been most important to you, and in what ways?
I have been very fortunate to study with many great teachers. My first teacher, Alexey Lazko, with whom I spent nearly 11 years, gave me not only a fundamental technical base, but also inspired me to have a respectful attitude to the instrument and to the profession in general.
When I moved to Germany, I started studying with Professor Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt. He knows how to bring playing to the highest technical and artistic level, whilst not destroying the individual concepts.
Now I am learning even more from playing chamber music with great musicians and working with different conductors. It is a very effective and enriching way to learn.
I would like to mention two more people who have had an incredible influence on me artistically and opened up new horizons: Steven Isserlis and András Schiff. I think that András Schiff’s lectures on all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas from the Wigmore Hall (available on youtube) are probably one of the most valuable assets on the Internet, especially for musicians.
Tell us something about the music education system in Russia. How do you feel it differs from what you’ve seen of the approach in western Europe?
It is very difficult to differentiate schools of teaching in our global world. For example, my teacher, Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, is German, but he has studied with David Geringas and Mstislav Rostropovich amongst others.
There are some general differences in systems though: in Russia I think the basic music education for small children is more serious and complete. From the very beginning you have to take it seriously, as if you were a professional player, it is not a hobby and a strong importance is placed on music theory, which is taught alongside normal instrumental lessons.
It is quite the opposite with higher education. From that point, it is very important to be open-minded, to be surrounded by many musicians, to learn about new cultures and to absorb the world around you.
I was born in Russia where the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov is the ‘mother tongue’. I moved to Germany – the home of Bach and Beethoven – in order to be immersed in a different culture and learn a new musical language. Composers have unique ways of expressing themselves, which is more often than not linked with their native language and culture; a goal for me as a musician is to learn the unique languages of each composer to gain a better understanding of the music and the meaning behind it.
What is it like taking part in competitions and what advice would you give to other players on how best to prepare?
I think every musician has their own experience with competitions. There are a lot of advantages such as the preparation period and helping an artist discover the artistic direction they want to go in and perhaps more importantly, not to go in.
I felt very fortunate to win a TONALi Grand Prix Competition in Hamburg, which gave a lot of new different impulses to my life. It was more than three years ago, but I am still in contact with lots of creative people from the competition, many of whom have become my close friends.
What cello are you playing and where/how did you get it?
It is an old, most probably Italian instrument. I cannot tell you more information because some details are still not 100 per cent clear. It was by great luck that this cello found me one day, by accident.
Which performances/tours/projects are you most looking forward to in the 2015-16 season?
I am very much looking forward to the tour with Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana and Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing in Berlin and returning to Cadogan Hall where we played together for the first time a year ago. I am also excited to make two debuts: in Japan with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Michael Sanderling and in the US with the San Francisco Symphony and also Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Here in London you’re playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations – what are the biggest challenges for you in this piece?
This is one of my most favorite pieces written for cello. The music combines a very delicate Rococo style and Russian melancholy, which makes it very special. The extremely light and clear orchestration allows the soloist not to force the sound but to play in a very intimate and fragile way. The combination of brilliance, lightness, simplicity and at the same time incredible depth and sadness in the Variations makes me think about the Genius of Mozart, who was a great inspiration for Tchaikovsky.
There are two versions of the Variations: the original and a version by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen — a cellist, for whom the piece was written. Tchaikovsky himself has approved the other version and even conducted it, but he preferred the original one. I play both of them and I find that although the Fitzenhagen’s is more popular nowadays, in the original version we can discover a lot of interesting things and hear much more clearly, how this variation cycle was originally imagined by the composer.
Do you think classical music needs to be ‘saved’?
Classical music has already withstood the most dangerous and difficult times, and I am sure that it will always be alive. Nowadays we have so many privileges, compared with 30 years earlier, for example: new concert halls, a lot of important research, new musical editions and unlimited access to incredible resources on the internet. The world is changing every day and our goal is to remember the fundamental meaning of art and to use new opportunities to support classical music, not destroy it.
Alexey Stadler performs Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo Variations’ with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana and Principal Guest Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy on 18 December at Cadogan Hall, as part of the Zurich International Orchestra series 2015-2016.