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S & H Interview

Interview with Daniel Müller-Schott by Melanie Eskenazi


The 'cellist Daniel Müller - Schott is only 25, but he has already made a name for himself; he won the International Tchaikovsky competition at the age of 16, and after studying with some of the great masters of the instrument and becoming the protégé of Anne-Sophie Mutter, he swiftly established a reputation with concerts all over Europe and the U.S., as well as a very well-received recording of the Bach suites. On the 16th and 23rd of this month he will join another of his mentors, Steven Isserlis, for two concerts in the Wigmore Hall's Taneyev Festival.

Müller - Schott has it all; a flawless technique which allows him to concentrate on the most intense expressiveness, a feeling for the natural shape of phrases which echoes that of Casals, and a passionate manner of performance which had me thinking of du Pré, at least as evidenced from his recording, as well as a searching intelligence which bodes well for his future exploration of the 'cello repertoire. It can't do him any harm, either, that he's extremely personable, handsome and articulate. Wigmore Hall audience members who have not previously encountered him should prepare to be entranced on the 16th and 23rd, when he will be heard in performances of Taneyev's String Quintets and works by Glazunov and Arensky.

I interviewed him in advance of his London appearances, and what struck me most about this young musician was his quiet self- assurance, his acceptance of the fact that he is something special, yet without anything remotely egotistical or self-promoting; it was the sort of conversation that puts one in mind of Keats saying "I think that I shall be among the English Poets." Although more than willing to talk about his own life and to respond in detail to any questions put to him, he always brought the topic back to the music, to how best one might convey the composer's spirit to the audience.

Recalling a remark made by Steven Isserlis during the Wigmore's centenary celebrations, that when first walking out onto the platform there one can feel scared by the thought that one has to play one's best so as to justify the nature of the applause, I asked Daniel how he approaches playing in such an august venue; acknowledging the hall's history and beauty, he stressed above all the unbelievably precise acoustic and the special nature of this audience, "So educated, having heard so much repertoire, and with such concentration." The Taneyev Festival is of course the brain-child of Isserlis, whose grandfather was taught by the composer, and his Quintet, to be heard on the 16th, is, according to Daniel, a genuinely revelatory piece which is "in a similar style to the Schubert Quintet, but in a very Russian and personal way."

Daniel is a musician who has absorbed influences from many different teachers and associates; besides Isserlis and Mutter, he acknowledges a debt to one of his teachers, Heinrich Schiff, and had interesting things to say about their relative influences on his own playing. I suggested that Schiff had always seemed to me a very 'muscular' player, whereas Isserlis is perhaps more delicate in style; this was a bit too large a generalization to meet with approval, but he did volunteer the idea that whereas Schiff is more demanding as far as the more technical world of the instrument is concerned, the younger man is more absorbed with phrasing and sound, always seeking what the composer wanted. Certainly, these two essential strands are united in Müller-Schott's own playing.

He has won rave notices from more usually reticent critics for his exceptional ability to combine technical assurance with expressiveness, and I asked him at what point technical matters become less important than interpretation; with all the assurance of youth as well as his obviously profound musicality, he replied that in order to express what is in the music, one must first conquer the technical problems, but that if you think first and foremost of the beauty of the music, such problems will not be a severe challenge to solve. A similar confidence was evident when asked why he had selected the Bach suites as his first recording; surely an ambitious project, bound to lead to the inevitable comparison with Yo Yo Ma? Not so, according to him; "I have lived with the suites from the age of six years old, and anyway Bach was not all that old when he composed them. As for comparisons, yes, of course I have been influenced by hearing the recordings of Casals and others, but I think that every 'cellist has the right to present his own reading of these works."

Müller-Schott is not your conventional just-established 'cellist, however; he may have begun his recording career with the mainstay of the repertoire, but his next CD, for EM1 Classics, will be of sonatas by Poulenc and Franck, and he has a refreshing attitude towards the study of new and previously obscure pieces; describing himself as "always searching" for music to extend his repertoire, he has recently discovered "two really beautiful concertos" by Joachim Raff, a composer regarded in his own time as the equal of Brahms, and whose "Im Walde" was once one of the two most-played symphonic works in the entire repertoire. Daniel also spoke in glowing terms about Arensky's little-known but "amazing" Quartet for violin, viola and two 'cellos, which Wigmore audiences will hear on the 23rd.

He is very aware of the problems facing classical music today, in terms of dwindling audiences and the propensity towards "dumbing down," but his views are uncompromising. Whatever the size of the hall, however famous or up-and-coming the players, the audiences will so often want to hear "big names," and it is the musician's task to reach out to the audience and "educate them to explore the beauties of the music. "I am idealistic: I want an audience that is interested in music." His own audiences have certainly shown that he has the capability to convince them; he has even received ovations from the orchestra - now there's something you don't see every day.

Müller-Schott would seem to be the perfect candidate for the kind of marketing which has helped to make big stars out of musicians like Hilary Hahn, Vanessa-Mae, Andreas Scholl and Ian Bostridge; not only does he possess talent and dedication in spades, but he's also cuter than any other chamber music player around today, and bound to appeal to those who might be inclined to "think the music heavenly, and the musician hardly less so," as Trollope wrote of another player of his instrument. However, he is not interested in what he contemptuously calls "a beautiful photo," and is uncomfortable with the notion of his looks having an influence on how he is received, although, as he puts it, "As long as they are open to the music, I don't mind."

Among his current repertoire, he names the Schumann and Dvorak concertos, and the "Arpeggione" sonata, as his particular favourites, and he sees his future in terms not only of performing the standard repertoire but working with present day composers such as Penderecki, with whom he is soon to perform, and of course, he has always before him the possibility that one day a composer will be inspired to write for him. I would not be surprised if that day were to arrive fairly soon.

Melanie Eskenazi

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