After discovering a rare video of his performance on the violoncello de spalla, Masterpiece Finder contributors contacted Russian born violinist, Sergey Malov, in order to discover more about him. His promotion of this little known instrument perfectly matches the intentions of those at Masterpiece Finder, and we were thrilled to discover that his curiosity stretches extensively beyond this one stringed instrument. Read more below to learn about his variety of contributions to music and society.
Do you find it detrimental to the arts that most musicians "specialize" in one area or instrument rather than make themselves versatile?
I think the two tendencies have always been present, fighting each other. I am versatile, but one could say that I also "specialize" on just a few string instruments. Without a versatile mind one shouldn't pursue music, but without specializing, it is impossible to dig in depth.
As most music schools today have specific and confined trajectories and repertoires, how did you escape the standard "beaten path" during your music studies?
It has been this way since my childhood. I guess "being different" is something that is innately human, and there's no need to force that. It comes naturally. Other instruments, other repertoire, all of this came to me because I liked it very much. However, I also love the standards.
Assuming that violin is your primary instrument, when did you begin to branch out into other parts of the string family, and what influenced this decision?
It all came because of Bach's Cello suites. I started to play them on viola. Then I figured out that Thomas Riebl, viola Professor at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg was the musician I needed to learn from. After studying with him for a time, I found a brochure of the ARD viola competition and had a couple of months to learn the repertoire. I got lucky, and I played the Bartok viola concerto in the finals!
My encounter with violoncello da spalla was inevitable. I dreamt about it even before I knew it existed! From the moment I first saw it on YouTube, I knew I was going to play something like this.
You have won four major competitions, three on violin and one on viola. In what ways has your musical journey advanced due to your participation in these competitions? Are competitions a source of motivation for you, or are they just ‘par for the course’ and stepping stones to greater opportunities?
Indeed, I have won a couple, but I also lost several others badly. All of them were a great experience. Injustice, incompetence, and simple bad luck are just the rules of the game. I'm proud I have never compromised the most important aspect - the Music. I played Bach with a baroque bow and less vibrato, and I improvised my own cadenzas. It worked, but only very late and on very few occasions. I'm happy to see that modern competitions develop slowly nowadays. They are no longer inviting those corrupt "famous teachers,” those brons and kushnirs and amoyals to "judge" anymore. Now, competitions encourage musicians to present their performances with purpose.
You are fluent in six languages. In what ways does your versatility in language help your musical interpretations on your four instruments? Do you find similarities between a certain country's language and its musical heritage?
I guess music and languages are members of the same chain. I am probably trying to understand something very big and important, and in my search for understanding I use many different approaches. Certainly, there is a connection between languages and music! Funnily enough, folk music from different nations have lots of similarities, reminding us of times before the nations were separated.
You recently recorded an album of chamber music by the contemporary French composer, Jerome Ducros. What role did you play in these ensembles, violinist or violist? Please, tell us more about Jerome Ducros.
Jerome is a brilliant musician and a very humble person. I love playing with him and Jerome Pernoo, the cellist. I only play violin with them. I was happy when they found such a prominent label (Decca) for this album. The music is full of emotions and virtuosity. It's fun to play!
It is quite an honor that luthier, Dmitry Badiarov built a violoncello de spalla specifically for you. What individual considerations or specifications did he have in mind when constructing this instrument?
There were two considerations that Dmitry kept in mind: one of the conditions of purchasing the violoncello da spalla was, that I'd be able to transport it in the airplane. It looks almost like a violin in the case. The other was that I would be able to learn to play it in a short amount of time.
In all seriousness, I was totally open to whatever Dmitry would offer. Later, when I advanced a bit, we worked a lot on the instrument's technical possibilities. Not only the instrument, but also the strings are custom made for me by Thomastic Infeld, Vienna. The case is custom made in England, and another bow is being made recently by Luis Emilio Rodriguez in Hague.
When preparing repertoire on this rare instrument, what sources do you draw from to help you prepare and perform?
I use musical scores. There is enough historical evidence to justify the existence of the instrument. In addition to historical research, I am interested in being relevant for the present times, while also creating something beautiful for the future.
As the instrument disappeared in the mid-18th century, and only three violoncello de spallas survive, you are largely setting the standard for other aspiring period instrumentalists. How do you carry this responsibility?
I carry the responsibility fairly easily, because I inform the public as much as they inform me. When I present the instrument to people for the first time, I always encounter curiosity, admiration, and surprise. This is, I suppose, the right feedback and acknowledgement that I am doing the right thing.
Do you simultaneously divide your time between each of the four instruments or is it important for you to focus on only one for a set amount of time? Do you combine instruments during a recital?
Yes, I try to combine the instruments in solo recitals, and also in performances with orchestras. At some point, the difficulty in transitioning from one instrument to the other disappeared, and, in turn, it began to allow for more interesting programs and contexts.
As for the first question, I just practice the pieces I need next for performances. My repertoire choices dictate what instrument the program will need, and, therefore, what I will practice.
You are well-versed in repertoire from virtually every period (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary). Which challenges in learning repertoire are similar across each of the periods, and what challenges do you find unique within each period?
I am trying to prove that there are many fewer differences across the periods than people perceive. I think it is essential to understand Baroque music (Bach, Vivaldi) in order to perform music from the Romantic period (Brahms, Schumann) with sense. I wish I could be more capable in jazz and folk styles and in improvised music, in general. I'm working on that. The creative freedom that you find in jazz, folk and improvisatory music influences one’s understanding of all of the other styles the most!
When transitioning from modern instruments to period instruments, a lot of people have a hard time adjusting to the different tuning (A440 vs. A432 vs. A415). How did you approach this challenge?
I went through these hard times! Learning through doing is the only way here, I assume.
There are many so-called Baroque orchestras that perform on the instruments of that period. Their philosophy is to present the authenticity of composers ideas. Do you agree with this approach? Are there any downsides to this method? Describe your approach to Baroque music.
I think trying to understand a composer’s ideas, in particular through going back to his contemporary instrumentarium is absolutely right. I share this approach. However, I find it highly important, and even necessary, that one should search for an expression and sound that is strong enough to be relevant and important for today's listener. There is, as I underlined before, no big difference between "historical" and "modern" for me. There is much more importance to be found in relevance or irrelevance, a thrilling performance versus a boring one, and a special approach versus one that is mediocre.
You performed Paganini caprice no. 5 with the original bowings. Why do you think violinists play it differently today than the composer intended? What other examples can you think of where the performing approach has changed?
When I started practicing the caprice I was challenged to do this simply as a pure sport interest. For Paganini personally, it must have been lot of fun - discovering all of these strokes and being the only one to perform them. Or, maybe, he did not discover them, and just borrowed from Tartini and Locatelli. Even still, apart from that, a character of agitato is more strongly audible this way, with these original bowings. Understanding the kind of expression needed in music leads to the technical execution of it in a much more direct way. This is what many modern so-called famous teachers have forgotten; or they just consider things differently. Oftentimes, the technical and mechanical approach is considered before the content of the music.
What is your opinion regarding string players today versus their historical counterparts? Do you think preforming craft has grown stronger over the years or not?
No doubt about it. I think it is great that an average violinist nowadays is able to perform the most difficult pieces. The orchestras are, in turn, much better, and more audiences can listen to great performances. I am not worried about the lack of extraordinary personalities nowadays, either. The Richard Tognetti's, Thomas Zehetmair's, Pekka Kuusisto's of today prove this very well. At the moment, I'm planning to make a recording of Ysaye solo violin Sonatas and works of his contemporaries with an old fashioned recording technique - a sort of Homage to Great Old Times. But luckily, our times are still great!!
Do you compose music? What is your view on the future of classical music? Have we reached the finish line in terms of great composers?
I hope we haven't. As long as there are Jörg Widmann and Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Williams and Guillaume Connesson, it will all be fine.
In regards to myself, I tend to improvise more and more extensively. Because they are just improvisations, these compositions can't be kept. Nor can they be criticized, or misinterpreted. As I improvise more, I find myself moving in the direction of composition. A musician should be able to create a couple of musical ideas himself.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions! We greatly admire your contribution to the arts and your versatility as well.
Thank you very much!