Cellist Anastasia Kobekina Creates an Aural Slideshow of Her Trip to Italy on ‘Venice’

Kobekina’s Venice is more feeling than exposition, an unguarded meander rather than a guided tour

By Megan Westberg | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

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It is (inexplicably) difficult to refer to Venice without a crowd of non-Italians rushing into one’s head, clamoring to contribute something to the conversation. “The whole place,” offered Henry James of St. Mark’s Square in The Aspern Papers, “of a summer’s evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble (the only sounds of the arcades that enclose it), is like an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks and to a still finer degustation—that of the exquisite impressions received during the day.” 

Or, more simply—and to hop centuries and forms of media—“Ah, Venice.” Despite the reams of paper dedicated to the works of writers, from Shakespeare to Goethe to Wilkie Collins, fascinated by this aqueous cityscape, these two succinct words, intoned by a habitually taciturn Indiana Jones, are perhaps enough to capture the tenor of a visitor’s “exquisite impressions” that have sustained the world’s historical, ongoing love affair with the eternal Queen of the Adriatic. Its role as an artistic muse remains undiminished. Enchanted by her own time navigating its paving stones and quiet waters, its 400-plus bridges and 120(ish) islands, cellist Anastasia Kobekina has recently added her voice to the dreamy tumult, seeking to capture the city in sound on her recent release titled (what else?) Venice.  

Kobekina first visited the Floating City in 2020, and so found it a bit quieter than it would have been had she gone in any other year (Venice plays host to about 30 million tourists annually). Its tangled streets ensnared her imagination. “I was moved by the city and by its variety, its character,” she says. “I felt a personal connection to this place, a fascination with this place.” Having left it behind, she found that Venice lingered in her memory, and she decided that creating a musical snapshot of the city might make for an interesting project. “So,” she says, “I started to look for pieces which might relate to this place, to embody the character of the place.” 

But Venice isn’t a place easily rendered. It is a place where imagination and reality blend, and not always harmoniously, where the past and present sit side by side. And to a certain extent, Kobekina wanted to represent Venice as it is and was, but she wasn’t particularly interested in approaching that idea in a literal way. As is emphasized in its liner notes, this is an album of impressions. “It’s very personal,” she says. 


That’s not to say her selections don’t draw from the city’s musical heritage. There is, in fact, plenty of music included that was written by composers naturally associated with the City of Bridges—Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi, Antonio Sartorio, for a start. Others famously spent time there (John Dowland) or wrote music inextricably linked to Venice (Gabriel Fauré’s Cinq melodies “de Venise,” Benjamin Britten’s opera, Death in Venice), even if these weren’t the pieces chosen by Kobekina to represent her Venice. 

Indeed, Kobekina’s Venice is more feeling than exposition, an unguarded meander rather than a guided tour. And because she doesn’t limit herself to music specifically of the city, of its history, contemporary pieces like Caroline Shaw’s Limestone & Felt are free to fill out her vision, drawing the listener’s gaze away from the Carnival masks for a peek at what the cellist sees underneath them. 

Caroline Shaw’s Limestone & Felt

Kobekina was born in Russia and began her cello training at age four, making her orchestra debut at age six. After studying at the Central Music School in Moscow, she moved to Germany, where she studied at the Kronberg Academy with Frans Helmerson and then with Jens Peter Maintz at the University of Arts in Berlin. After a stint in the studio of Jérôme Pernoo in Paris, she returned to Germany, where she currently studies Baroque cello with Kristin von der Goltz. So educationally speaking, Kobekina has really put in the time. And, given the accolades and playing opportunities afforded her as a result, it seems to have been time well spent. 

She’s won prizes at the Tchaikovsky and Enescu Competitions; she was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2018–21; and she became a Borletti-Buitoni Trust artist in 2022. She’s played at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Lincoln Center and Wigmore Hall and the Verbier and Gstaad Menuhin Festivals. With Kremerata Baltica and the BBC Philharmonic and Konzerthausorchester Berlin. In other words, her bio is thoroughly studded with very shiny venue, ensemble, conductor, and festival names. 

Another name that no doubt has played an influential role in Kobekina’s development as a cellist is that of her father, composer Vladimir Kobekin, who wrote a piece specifically for this album, her debut for Sony. “I know his language the best of all the composers,” she says, which makes sense. The first time she approached his music, she was five years old. On Venice, the piece’s premiere, Kobekin’s work serves as one half of “an arc between the first and last pieces,” says Kobekina—one side represented by the first track, Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, the other Kobekin’s Ariadne’s Lament, variations on Monteverdi’s theme. 


Vladimir Kobekin’s Ariadne’s Lament (Variations on a Theme by Claudio Monteverdi)

It is an interesting way to bookend an album about Venice, both pieces exploring anguish, darkness rather than the brilliant color for which historical Venetian painters were so famous. But then, it is a city that has seen sorrow, especially in the form of plague. Monteverdi’s Lament eases the listener into Kobekina’s curated sound world, albeit mournfully, introducing the sense of intimacy that saturates the rest of the album. Kobekin’s piece nods at Monteverdi (1567–1643) across the centuries and amplifies the drama. “This piece goes right under my skin, and recording it was one of the most intense musical experiences I have ever had,” Kobekina says in the liner notes. “It requires pushing oneself emotionally to the very depths, a feeling of flirting with the edge of tragedy and madness.”

Drama takes on a driving, percussive flavor in the second track, the Allegro from Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in A minor, RV. 419. It sounds as though Kobekina had a good time with this one and with her collaborators, various soloists and members of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. “I enjoyed so much the energy, but, of course, I didn’t know how it would sound because there were so many elements, and the whole orchestra needs to contribute to make it special,” she says. “So we experimented in crazy directions! And I’m so happy with how it turned out in the end. It’s a little bit on the wild side.”

There are a number of pieces on this album composed by Vivaldi (1678–1741), who, of course, spent the majority of his life in Venice. Kobekina seems to have a particular fondness for the Red Priest. “What I like about Vivaldi is that you are carried by the succession of harmonies on a basic human level,” she says. “There is a physical effect of this music.”

Though much of the music Kobekina chose represents a historical Venice “in its glory and its power,” this is an album very much about the city’s present as well. “It’s completely changing,” says Kobekina of her album’s namesake. “It has this dangerous side.” Contemporary pieces unmask a place of whimsy, charm, unpredictability, and, yes, even menace that feels decidedly modern. Caroline Shaw’s harmonious, snapping treasure, Limestone & Felt, is meant to “represent two opposing ways we experience history and design our own present,” according to the edition. György Kurtág’s Árnyak (Shadows) hints at peril skulking just beneath the city’s amicably buzzing, red-roofed veneer. 


Just because this album was a labor of love—for Venice, for the cello, for exploring a varied “palette of emotions and colors”—does not mean it didn’t present its own set of challenges. The album is so very vocal, not only in terms of repertoire (there are quite a few transcriptions of vocal works) but also in approach. There’s a sense that Kobekina uses her cello to sing her way through the music. Developing this application of her artistic voice, this “quality of the words,” was, she says, not easy. Nor was the studio experience, where she learned to trust in her expressiveness and explore its limits. “I so enjoyed working in the studio to record,” she says. “It was very exciting and very painful because it’s a very honest window in which you’re looking. An incredible learning process.”

She’s pleased with the result and grateful to her colleagues for their focus and support. “It’s challenging to play the music so open and so like [you would] in your best concert, but for an empty room. For a microphone.” She looks forward to playing the program for live audiences this summer. 

But before she heads to festivals throughout Europe, her attention will inevitably be drawn back, as her album is released, to the City of Masks that so bewitched her. To the water and the sky, the drama and the serenity, the art and the architecture and the history and the people. To the inescapable grasp of change and complexity. 

“I hope people enjoy the variety of this program and create their own imagery of Venice,” Kobekina says, adding that she would love for listeners to discover the resonance in the music “that makes us more receptive, more sensitive.” Consider it a markedly personal account of a Grand Tour stop that spans centuries.