The music of Shostakovich is taken up these days by instrumentalists around the world, but very few living string players approach its broader cultural milieu with a connection as deep and authentic as the cellist Natalia Gutman. This weekend she is in town from Moscow to perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander. The piece was written for her teacher, Mstislav Rostropovich, and she has performed it under his baton.
Gutman was married to the noted violinist Oleg Kagan, with whom she played at Shostakovich's funeral. She was also a close friend of the composer Alfred Schnittke, and was mentored for much of her life by the piano titan Sviatoslav Richter. He once described her as "that extraordinary musician . . . one of the people with whom I've derived the most pleasure from making music."
Before heading off to a dress rehearsal this week, Gutman took part in an interview at a friend's home in Waltham. Speaking through a translator, she untethered a few memories of the late decades of the Soviet Union, and of the rich musical world that sustained so many, including one precocious teenage girl whose instrument was the cello.
Q: You were considerably younger than the musicians you admired. How did you first come into contact with them?
A: In the years after World War II, there were very hard living conditions. My mother was a pianist so we had music at home, but my childhood was very meager in terms of concerts and entertainment. But when I was about 14, both Isaac Stern and the Boston Symphony Orchestra came to Moscow, with Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux. These were extraordinary events for all of us. At around the same time, I fell in love with Sviatoslav Richter. I heard him play Schubert at the House of Architects, and I was in such a state, like a trance, I couldn't get up afterwards. I eventually went to greet him with my friends. He was very tall, and for the rest of my life I remember how he peered down at us little girls. From then, I ran to all of his concerts because for me it was like breathing air. Richter became a mentor figure. I've never seen someone hypnotize an audience like that, the whole audience. And his style was so clear, when he played Debussy, for example, it was almost possible to see with your own eyes what Richter was seeing.
Q: And your teacher Rostropovich?
A: I studied with him in graduate school in Leningrad. He had a genius intuition toward every student. He knew exactly what they needed. . . . His lessons with me were very emotional. I'm very thankful to fate that I had them.
Q: Did you know Shostakovich personally?
A: I was acquainted with him, but he was not a personal friend. We all knew that he was a genius. Everybody expected so much from each new piece he created. When his pieces were performed and he was in the audience at the conservatory, everyone in the hall would look not to the stage but at Shostakovich, because he was so nervous and could not sit quietly.
If there was talk about him signing certain unfortunate letters [thereby lending his prestige to government policies], we all disregarded it because he signed so much more in his music. It was all in his music. And his broken life also pardons the fact that he signed those letters. This is what everybody knew. He had no skin; he had only exposed nerves. He was defenseless, since his younger days. By signing the letters he liberated himself to write the music that was so important for him and for all of us. Everybody knew his attitude, and what Soviet power did to him, and what it cost him. It was one terrible tragedy. When he died, so many people came to pay their respects at his funeral. There were so many policemen, too. The government must have expected an eruption.
Q: Did the concertgoing public understand his music differently than the Soviet officials?
A: The official establishment didn't bother to understand his music at all. It is very noteworthy that during the dress rehearsal of his 14th Symphony, the smaller hall of the Moscow Conservatory was packed with musicians and students. Suddenly there was commotion in the back. There was a governmental official, a representative of the ideological department of the ministry, who had been persecuting Shostakovich. This man just dropped dead. Maybe it was the first time he had actually heard Shostakovich's music after all those years of persecuting him. It was definitely the last time!
Q: What can you tell us about the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1?
A: I don't know how to talk about the music I play. It's very difficult to put into words. I feel that if you can describe everything about the piece, then it's not very good music. Both cello concertos by Shostakovich are so important. The first one is a masterpiece of form. The second is his confession, a monologue, from the beginning to the end.
Q: Did music matter more in the Soviet period?
A: This is perhaps a universal truth. The more difficult and repressed life is, the more we have a need for such music. In Russia we speak of an audience as being "hungry."
Q: Is it difficult to play for other audiences that are less hungry?
A: Maybe yes. Sometimes.
Q: Did being Jewish affect your career as an artist in the Soviet Union?
A: Yes. For nine years, from 1969 to 1978, I was not allowed to leave the country, even to the socialist republics. I don't know why, other than the fact that I am Jewish. They always tried to curb the careers of Jewish musicians. When I was 16 and just beginning my career, my mother was summoned by the assistant of the head of the Moscow Philharmonic, who was Jewish. He said, "Your daughter is very capable. I want to give you advice. Change her last name." But I refused to do it. It was a badge of honor not to do it. My grandfather was shot down in Stalin's terror, and so I felt strongly I didn't want to change my name. It was his name.
Q: You have curated memorial concerts in honor of the musicians you knew. Do you feel a sense of mission, a responsibility to carry the torch forward?
A: Mission is too high a word for me, but I'm doing my own personal thing. For me, my connectedness to them is very important. When I play something, I always think about what my grandfather would say, or Richter, or Rostropovich.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.