Tanya Anisimova

The magnificent musical duo of Tanya Anisimova (cello) and Lydia Frumkin (piano) performed at the Rachmaninov Hall of the Moscow Conservatory as part of a concert series entitled "The Master and His Students" marking the 100th anniversary of the cellist Svyatoslav Knushevitsky.

Today both these musicians, our compatriots, live in the United States and perform all over the world.

Tanya Anisimova is a renowned cellist and composer who has studied under the Moscow Conservatory professor Igor Gavrysh and won prizes at national and international competitions while still a student. She achieved international acclaim in 2001 when she released a two-CD set with her own transcriptions of J. S. Bach's violin sonatas and partitas for the cello. Western media have noted her emotional sincerity, her rich inner world and masterful technique, calling her a "cellist of remarkable depth and surpassing musicality."

Lydia Frumkin has managed to combine a performing career with a teaching one: for over thirty years, she has taught piano at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, USA, as well as master classes at European and American music festivals. Many of her students have gone on to win prizes at international competitions.

We met in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Moscow Conservatory on a sweltering day fragrant with the scent of blooming trees. The musicians, who had just arrived in Russia, immediately began rehearsals, which lasted for hours. Our conversation continued the next day after the concert, which was a resounding success.


Tanya Anisimova is a strong personality. A cellist of incredible energy and temperament, she knows how to keeps the audience in suspense throughout the whole concert. The cello in her hands is not a mere instrument but her alter ego, her musical essence. Tanya says that she finds herself having to be the first to do certain things, such as transcribing violin partitas for the cello or learning to play the davidangelo... She sings, too -- she chants while playing her signature improvisations on the cello. And as her improvisations on those truly magical strings mingle with her incantations, her supplications, so unfolds before the audience her enchanting, multifaceted, immeasurable soul.

MB: Tanya, how many years have you been away from Moscow, and what made you return here across thousands of miles?

Tanya: Oh, this time it all happened too fast. I was supposed to play my new cello concerto with the Moscow Conservatory orchestra in the Rachmaninov Hall. But because of the International Tchaikovsky Competition all symphony concerts scheduled for May got canceled. But the date of the concert was still reserved, and also at the last minute someone came forward to sponsor it. This is how we ended up in Russia after all, en route from Mexico to Iceland. I had played in Moscow the year before but Lydia had not been back in years.

MB: How long have you been playing with Lydia Frumkin?

Tanya: I give a lot of solo performances but when I do play with a piano accompaniment I always play with Lydia because she is a very deep, very spiritual artist. First of all, Lydia and I think alike. When you play together that is a necessary precondition.

MB: The concert you performed in marked the 100-year anniversary of Svyatoslav Knushevitsky's birth. What does this name mean to you?

Tanya: Svyatoslav Knushevitsky is my cello "grandfather," so to speak! He was one of the greatest Russian cellists of all time. My own cello teacher, Professor Igor Ivanovich Gavrysh, was his last student.

Knushevitsky had an amazingly beautiful cello sound. But what is sound? It is a reflection of how one sees reality. In order to reproduce the sound, one must have an "idea," an ideal sound, in one's head. Knushevitsky's "ideal" sound was very beautiful, and most importantly, he was able to reproduce it.

It really was all very symbolic: at the Knushevitsky memorial concert in Rachmaninov Hall we played Rachmaninov's cello sonata In G minor, which in turn had been Knushevitsky's signature piece, he played it brilliantly. And also this was 110 years since the death of Brahms, and we played my cello transcription of his violin sonata in D minor.

MB: Tanya, how would you describe what the cello means to you?

Tanya: There is no better instrument in the world! The cello is a whole universe of sounds, of timbres. It is universal and self-contained; for me, the cello is all-powerful. It has such versatility and might that it can, all by itself, keep the audience in suspense during the entire concert. I try to give more solo performances but this is not very easy because when people invite you to play they expect a more traditional repertoire. The audience has not grown used to the idea that the cello, like the piano, is entitled to be heard solo.

MB: Today in Russia, not many parents sign their children up for cello classes. And how is it in America?

Tanya: In America, too, there are fewer cellists than violinists, and fewer violinists than pianists. That is understandable: vocalists and pianists are an easier "sell." Nevertheless, today in America there is a whole constellation of young and very interesting cellists that is coming up and will, of course, continue to grow and develop.

MB: Were your parents also musicians?

Tanya: No. My mother was a chemist but she was very musical, had a beautiful singing voice, played the piano very well. On her side of the family they all sang, played musical instruments and even wrote songs. My father, well-known physicist Mikhail Anisimov, was head of the physics department at the Moscow Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas. In America he is a professor at the University of Maryland.

MB: Tell us about your career in the West.

Tanya: To be honest, I never set out to have a career -- it all came together by itself. Already in America, with my degree from the Moscow Conservatory and several competition prizes in my pocket, I realized that there was still so much I had not learned, and so I enrolled at the Boston University School of Music, graduating with what they call an Artist Diploma. A bit later the cellist Aldo Parisot, a professor at Yale where I came to audition for a festival, invited me to join their doctoral program in music. With fully-paid tuition, which was nice. So up until now I have spent the greatest part of my life studying. Later I began to compose, transcribe, teach; I have recorded seven CDs and have written a number of original cello works.

MB: As far as I know, you do not often perform in public. Do you have your own music agent?

Tanya: You know, people often ask me that. It is true that I give few public performances but I try to make each one memorable. Touring, giving a hundred concerts a year is an exhausting occupation. Here, for example, we just flew in from America, headaches, jet lag -- but we go out on stage and perform, and then drive somewhere else and perform again... This way, the audience does not get their money's worth in terms of quality of performance. You see, music and career are very different things. A career translates into a certain social standing, a steady stream of engagements, a certain position. Whereas music is not so much a profession as it is a calling. A musician is like a monk or a preacher, a born artist who cannot be otherwise. He may be famous or obscure but he is an artist first and foremost.

...So my career sort of happens all by itself, and -- Lydia is my witness -- I do nothing to make it happen. If people invite us to play, why, that's great. Somehow there is always something to look forward to: tours, concerts -- one thing after another. I must admit that I love the fact that, wherever we play, people want to see and hear us again. That's a good sign.

MB: How do you feel about the fact that classical cello today is called upon to play in the most modern musical productions, and do you play modern composers?

Tanya: I believe in new experiments and really enjoy playing modern composers. There is a whole range of composers with whom I work all the time: Ezra Laderman and David Del Tredici, Jessica Krash and Sis McKay. I have just recently recorded a whole CD of their music written specifically for me. I realize, of course, that not all music being written today will live on. Most of it will be forgotten but some will remain. Van Gogh did not sell a single painting in his lifetime, and Cezanne was mocked as an incompetent hack, but today their paintings bring in millions of dollars at art auctions. The same thing may happen to modern composers: each writes what he believes in, hoping that later, when he is gone, his music will remain. True music is timeless. I think that music based on sincere human feeling, that reflects a certain inner state, an emotion -- that kind of music will remain. But art that makes no emotional impact -- it comes and goes. For example, atonal music, which was basically an exercise in mathematics, is rarely performed today.

MB: Tanya, what music has had the greatest influence on you?

Tanya: That's a difficult question to answer. I was born in Chechnya, raised by my grandfather Hassan from infancy, and so absorbed Chechen melodies, then we moved to Moscow where I attended first the Central Music School (a primary school affiliated with the Moscow Conservatory), then the Conservatory itself, and there I learned the other, great Russian music. Later I moved to America, and there experienced a whole new strain of global musical culture, including typical American country music, Irish folk, African-American jazz... I really like the music of Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, especially his latest works; the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani Sufi singer and improviser; the ecstatic music of Iran; Ravi Shankar and his sitar...

So it's hard to single something out, it is more of a synthesis of global musical culture.

Today the world is witnessing the birth of new music -- the music of the future, so-called world music. It will have quite different features, it will incorporate a synthesis of many national trends. Even today world music provides nourishment for classical music, and jazz, and, of course, pop-music. So I think that I am influenced by something new every day.

MB: You play a rare musical instrument, a davidangelo. Please tell us about it.

Tanya: The davidangelo is like an alto violin but one that is ideally proportioned. Altos usually don't sound very good because they are too small for their tessiture. The davidangelo has a powerful voice because it 1.64 feet in length. I spent a long time learning to play this instrument; at first, I would stick the endpin into the chair and play it like a cello, then I learned to hold it in my lap... But I am so busy with the cello these days, I have so much to write and to play that I have no time to continue with these studies. In our hectic time, when everything is a rush, I simply can't afford it. Life is too short...

MB: It is an open secret that cellists, faced with a dearth of repertoire, like to borrow pieces from the violin. You not only transcribe pieces but also compose your own. Is that why?

Tanya: Of course. And I am very glad that my works are being played by other cellists. I hope that my contribution has helped expand the cello repertoire. Now I am planning a new sonata for the cello.

MB: How do you see your future: more as a performer or as a composer?

Tanya: I do not draw a line between these two: I will perform my own new compositions as well as other people's works. I have lots of plans: to record all of Brahms' sonatas, for the cello as well as the violin (in transcription); to write a concerto for two cellos; some piano sonatas specifically for Lydia; and so forth.

MB: Tanya, I know that you are a master improviser and even give master classes in improvisation?

Tanya: Yes, I give master classes and lectures. Recently my former Moscow Conservatory classmates reminded me that I used to improvise before each of our quartet rehearsals. I have no memory of that but I started doing it in public in earnest only in America; sometimes I devote an entire half of a recital to improvisations. Sometimes the audience sets me themes to improvise upon, anything from actual melodies from Shostakovich or Puccini to more abstract concepts like the Last Supper.

MB: I know that you also paint, besides everything else...

Tanya: Oh yes, painting is my rest, my relaxation! I started to paint because of my husband, painter Alexander Anufriev. I think that my cello playing also changed because of him. But he refuses to help me with my painting, alas. He says that he does not want to spoil me as an artist. He and I have different styles. He calls me a modern Pierre Bonnard... His own work is full of this great power and might, this High Renaissance -- but it is his own, Anufriev's version of the Renaissance -- and angels, angels, angels... This must be why we are still together, after all these years!


Lydia Frumkin is one of those amazing, subtle musicians who combine virtuosity with romantic flair, deep feeling with a delicate sense of ensemble playing. The sublime grace of her playing is beyond all doubt. And the flawless teamwork of the two musicians, their perfect mutual understanding has allowed them to infuse their performance with a refreshing spirit of improvisation.

MB: How did Russia seem to you after such a long absence?

Lydia: I was very pleased to be back, to play in this city that has a great cultural tradition and such a reverence toward music. It is heart-warming. The first thing I saw when we came into one of the rehearsal rooms at the Conservatory were portraits of Russian pianists. On one side -- the portrait of Maria Yudina, on the other -- Anna Pavlovna Ostrovskaya, who taught my own first teacher, Mikhail Solomonovich Muravin; her portrait used to hang on the wall in my music school classroom in Dushanbe. Besides, this concert was my first ever in Moscow. Before this, I had only performed in Leningrad.

MB: What does your tandem with Tatyana Anisimova mean to you?

Lydia: Tanya and I have been playing together for quite a long time. Working with her is a great pleasure because she is not only a talented artist but a seeker, she is on a constant quest for truth.

MB: How important is it to think alike in joint creative work?

Lydia: Music is a unity; the performer is merely part of its score. Even when you perform solo and come out to meet your audience alone, you are still part of the soul of music. To achieve this unity, the performers themselves must be in complete agreement, since music does not tolerate falsehood. Music is a process of achieving spiritual unity with something that is higher than ourselves. This is hard to explain in words. Not for nothing do they say that, where words end, music begins. We are people of the sound.

MB: Do you come from a musical family?

Lydia: No. My parents had nothing to do with music, neither my mother nor my father. I am the black sheep of the family, as they say. My musical life began with the accordion, and I was already 14 when I started learning the piano. My father was in the military, you see, and when I was little our family was stationed far from all civilization, on the Chukotka Peninsula. Once a small military band came there on tour; they had no instruments except a concertina. I was so enchanted that I begged my father right away to buy me a concertina. In Central Asia, where we moved after Chukotka, Papa signed me up for accordion lessons. But when I enrolled at the Leningrad Conservatory at 17, it was in their piano program. My admission into the program I owe to my first music teacher in Central Asia, Mikhail Solomonovich Muravin, himself a student of Anna Pavlovna Ostrovskaya and Professor Nadezhda Iossifovna Golubovskaya. When I first sat in on his piano class at the music school in Dushanbe I could not tear myself away but wanted to keep watching and listening forever. He took me on -- and in three years prepared me for the very competitive auditions at the Conservatory.

In Leningrad my teacher was Sedmara Zakarian, herself a student of Nadezhda Golubovskaya. She taught me a great deal -- correct hand positioning, for example, since I had come to the piano still with the hands of an accordion player... I was fortunate, because Sedmara Surenovna had her own method of teaching piano technique.

MB: Lydia, besides your performing career, you also teach a special piano class at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. Do you teach in the tradition of the Russian school of piano?

Lydia: This is a difficult question to answer. But I think that when I teach my students to approach music not as a collection of sounds but as a means of expressing something through those sounds -- that, of course, comes from the Russian school. But I have lived in America a long time, I have heard many world-class performers -- Glen Gould, Yehudi Menuhin, Grigory Pyatigorsky... They, too, have become part of me. So I think that I teach a synthetic fusion of traditions.

MB: Do you really commute many miles to work?

Lydia: Yes, that is true. You see, when we came to America in the mid-seventies, my husband got a job at Oberlin College; the Conservatory is part of it. He taught Russian language and literature, and I spent the first year accompanying students and teachers on the piano. The following year, when a vacancy opened up for a piano teacher's position, I applied for the job and was accepted. Later, my husband went to work as a journalist for the Voice of America, headquartered in Washington, DC, so that I could have moved with him but our daughter was growing up and would need to go to college. And Oberlin is one of the few colleges that provide full college tuition benefits for their teachers' children, even at other colleges. So we decided that I will commute as long as I can. Our daughter finished high school, then Brown University, then got married. And I am still driving six hours one way -- three and a half days in Washington, three and a half at Oberlin.

MB: You must already have several generations of students?

Lydia: Yes. Many of them went on to doctoral degrees and are teaching at different universities. Some are concert performers: the conductor Jed Gaylin or Mark Robson, a rather original musician, conductor and composer. But I must say that things are different in America, not as concentrated as in Russia -- a musician has a whole lot of different paths to choose from. Many of them move abroad.

MB: Do American students like to play the music of Russian composers?

Lydia: Yes. They do not play it often and do not always understand how it should be played but once you explain it to them, they enjoy playing it. They love Rachmaninov. Sometimes I give them modern Western composers as well, such as Messiaen. That is a learning experience for me, too. I cannot say that I can relate to that kind of music too well but it is a great pleasure to find meaning in a whole new direction.

MB: Who are your favorite composers?

Lydia: Those I am working on at any given moment. I come to love them when I am teaching their piece. For music is not merely a score. Before writing it down, the composer went through a process of suffering, thinking, feeling, and our job is to understand what moved him at that moment, what he experienced, why he wrote in this way and not in some other way. When Tanya Anisimova transcribed Beethoven's violin sonatas -- the Kreutzer and the Tenth -- that was also a learning experience for me because accompanying a violin is different from accompanying the cello. There are new colors that come out, in terms of rhythm as well as intonation. No matter what composer we are studying, it is always a very interesting quest... Of course, I do still have my favorite composers: Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Rachmaninov. Among the moderns, I can relate best to Prokofiev and Shostakovich -- although they are already considered classics...


Interview by Maria Baskova