Maxim Rysanov brings new power to the viola

Maxim Rysanov with his rare 1780 Guiseppe Guadagnini viola
Maxim Rysanov with his rare 1780 Guiseppe Guadagnini viola
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Audiences around the world are grateful Maxim Rysanov swapped his violin for a viola, writes Ken Walton

Is it true, or just urban myth, that most violists end up playing the viola by accident rather than design? According to one of the hottest players in the business, 37-year-old Ukrainian Maxim Rysanov, there is some truth in it. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I started because I wasn’t good enough as a violinist”.

Of course, you have to understand the context. At 11 years of age, Rysanov was packed off to Moscow by his parents to study violin at the city’s prestigious Central Music School. “It was the best school in Moscow. I auditioned for Galina Turchaninova, who was the teacher of Maxim Vengerov,” he recalls. “She was particularly famous for having her students play extremely difficult virtuosic things at a very early age. She asked me to play some double stops and I said I couldn’t. She said it was too late for me to be a violinist.”

These days he laughs it off, putting it down to an accidental stroke of good fortune. He continued in Moscow with a less formidable violin teacher; changed to viola at the age of 14, which he describes as “a good suggestion that really made my life very good”; moved to the Guildhall School of Music in London; and 20 years on is taking the musical world by storm with solo and chamber music performances that, if nothing else, prove that a great viola player is in no way equal to a second rate violinist.

Rysanov has already been in Scotland this year, as a featured artist in July’s East Neuk Festival, where his performances – distinctive for the magnitude and quality of sound he produces and the enticing expressiveness of his interpretations – marked him out, to my ears, and probably to the cheering Fife audiences, as one of the most exciting viola players on the world circuit today.

The exciting news is that he’s back, this week and next, touring Dundee, Inverness and Edinburgh with the Scottish Ensemble in a programme called “In Schubert’s Company”, 
prior to a final performance in London at the Wigmore Hall on 24 October.

In preparation for this project, which he hopes to record soon, Rysanov has been commissioning new works to fit in with the Schubert theme – two by fellow Ukrainian Sergey Akhunov, and one by the Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova. “Nowadays, every self-respecting viola soloist has at least several commissions in their repertoire,” he says.

He first met Tabakova when they were studying at the Guildhall. “She has written several pieces for me – a set of suites, a viola concerto and a string trio for an ensemble I played with in Berlin – and continues to do so,” he says. The pieces being performed on the Scottish Ensemble tour are the more recent Fantasy Homage to Schubert and an arrangement for viola and strings of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata.

Akhunov, whose In Schubert’s Company and Der Erlkönig are also direct responses to Schubert, has an interesting back story. “He was a rock musician writing pop songs and earning a very good living,” says Rysanov. “But one day he decided it wasn’t enough so he gave up writing pop music completely and went into classical music. He has placed himself in a style of minimalism, but I think he has something very deep to say.”

The other undoubted star of the show is Rysanov’s magnificent viola: a 1780 Guiseppe Guadagnini on loan to him from the Elise Mathilde Foundation in the Netherlands. “Guadagnini made about six of these instruments, but mine is probably the best,” he believes. “I think he was searching for a more convincing shape when he made it, and looking for a more projected sound. It is 
long but narrow, and the neck is about a centimetre longer than usual, which also means the strings have to be longer which increases the tension.”

But surely it’s not just the instrument that is responsible for the golden intensity of Rysanov’s sound? “It obviously helps to have an instrument like this, but it’s actually more to do with technique,” he concedes. “It used to be that most violists were violinists who, through necessity, found themselves playing the viola, so they played with a violin technique. I’m guessing Mozart and Beethoven were a bit like that.

“But if you give a viola to a violinist who has never played one, they would not be able immediately to project. They would realise they were playing too soft and start pressing harder. That’s the big mistake. It’s about using the weight properly and the speed of the bow.”

As Rysanov’s solo career continues to rocket, he is also pursuing a parallel life as a conductor, with forthcoming debuts directing, among others, the Russian National Orchestra, the London Mozart Players and the Sinfonietta Riga.

“Something drew me to conducting quite a few years ago,” he explains. “In 2003 I won the competition to become assistant conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, but being unhappy about the state of my viola career at the time I had to refuse it. That isn’t the case anymore, so I feel I can take conducting more seriously so I’ve started to combine the two.

“Quite often I’ll play a concerto in the first half of a concert and conduct the rest of the programme. I’m definitely moving strongly in that direction, though I’m deliberately taking my time to learn the repertoire and expanding it gradually. ”

It’s not just the professional bits and pieces that are falling into place. Rysanov now lives in Budapest with his Hungarian girlfriend, cellist Dóra Kokas, and when I spoke to him last week he was in Moscow, hoping that the news he’s been reading in recent weeks – that the war in his native Ukraine might be nearing an end – “isn’t just propaganda”.

Life is good, he says. It certainly paid to suck at the violin.

The Scottish Ensemble’s In Schubert’s Company tour is at the Caird Hall,Dundee, 16 October, 01382 434940 Eden Court, Inverness, 20 October, 01463 234 234; Assembly Rooms,Edinburgh, 21 October, 0131-220 4348; and Wigmore Hall, London,24 October, 0207 935 2141, www.scottishensemble.co.uk