By Laurence Vittes
At 25, Austrian-Persian cellist Kian Soltani is on the verge of a major breakthrough. With Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Soltani—formerly the orchestra’s solo cellist—will play Strauss’s Don Quixote on a seven-day tour November 5–11 at Chicago’s Symphony Center, Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall.
This will cap a year in which Soltani and his 1694 “London” Strad, on loan from the J & A Beare Violin Society, play Dvorak’s concerto in Lucerne with the Vienna Philharmonic, and then record it with Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Orchestra in Berlin. He will have played Elgar’s concerto with the Vorarlberg, Royal Philharmonic, Antwerp, and Prague City orchestras; and Schumann’s concerto in Szczecin, Aarau (where Albert Einstein was born), Paris (with Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting), Milan, and Stuttgart; and a Beethoven piano trio cycle at the Salzburg Festival with Daniel and Michael Barenboim.
Soltani’s debut recording for Deutsche Grammophon is called Home and was made last year with a similarly poetic Aaron Pilsan in the Austrian town of Hohenems where the famous Schubert festival takes place. Inevitably, perhaps, the highlight is Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, which Soltani lays out in movement-long structured arcs of expanding space that feel spontaneous and genuine—and yet still refreshingly light. I spoke to Soltani in Vienna about what’s under the Arpeggione‘s hood.
Tell me about your experience with the Arpeggione.
When I started to play the Arpeggione as a teen I focused on its technical aspects. It was only later that I started to understand its musical depth. Luckily, because of the years I had spent practicing, I was able to let go of its technical aspects, not make it about being virtuoso cello playing but focus completely on phrasing, on the music underneath. The big secret and goal of the Arpeggione is how to make it sound completely effortless—even though for the cellist that is not true. In fact it takes a huge effort, which no one is supposed to know—they are supposed to think it is effortless, easygoing, simple. But there’s nothing easygoing about it.
That brings up the question of the instrument itself, the arpeggione, a cross between a cello and a guitar with an extra string or two.
That’s just the thing. On an instrument with five strings all these simple-sounding fast passages are simple to play—they’re all in first or second position. Of course the piece was never supposed to be a big challenge technically. After all, the arpeggione was a new invention and Schubert wanted it to be enjoyable to play.
Is the Arpeggione really so difficult on the cello?
In addition to the notes, intonation is an absolute monster. Schubert’s writing is so exposed, his harmonies so clear, and his structure so logical that there’s no room for much error; everyone hears when you play out of tune.
Reza Vali’s Persian Folk Songs is an excellent complement to Schubert and Schumann.
And audiences really love it. I had worked with Reza before and wanted something that would show and incorporate the Persian roots we both have and are very connected to, even more for him perhaps because he grew up in Iran and knows that music inside out. And I wanted to enrich the cello repertoire and make it possible to play this kind of Persian music on the cello without needing a knowledge of Persian traditional music. In fact, Reza wrote it down in such detail that any cellist can pick this up and with some practice dive into completely new worlds of sound and color.
What it is like working with Daniel Barenboim?
At times it’s quite surreal. He’s a living legend who has met them all and has done so much in his life; to me working with him is a stream of knowledge I’m trying to absorb like a sponge. I’ve learned so much from him over the years—without him I would not be where I am, especially musically speaking. Maybe one day it will be my turn to pass on his knowledge. My responsibility now is to learn as much as I can.
What does he look for from you?
Being absolutely prepared goes without saying. It’s very interesting to play piano trios with him because he has very specific wishes even for the cello, and he always wants you to give everything. In [Beethoven’s] Opus 1, where the cello is mostly just doubling the piano’s left hand with sometimes a melodic moment or a short interaction with the violin, some pianists are happy to shine by themselves and leave the cello on the side. But he always wants you to give 100 percent and he never allows me to relax for a moment, even though my part may seem unimportant. He thinks that every note Beethoven wrote has a meaning. And as the role of the cello emancipates over the years leading to the Archduke, where the three players are finally completely equal, he then demands that I play as soloistically as he or his son.
What do you learn from your cello?
Two years with this cello have taught me that each of these master instruments has its own history, which combines with its physical characteristics to lead you to want to play a certain way. For example, you can feel it revolt when I am applying too much pressure, or bowing differently; instruments of this caliber, the better they are, the more demanding and rewarding they are.
For more about Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, and the instrument for which it was originally written, read “Why Do String Players Still Love Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata?”