Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?
When I was 7 years old, my guitar teacher told me from the very first lesson that the cello would be my instrument. I didn’t know exactly what it was or how to play a cello, but when I started to know how to play something, my teacher transcribed some parts of the Bach Cello Suites for me on small guitar. So I can say that “who” inspired me was a teacher of another instrument and “what” inspired me was a guitar.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
May I dare to say that the musician who has had the greatest impact on how I make music was Miles Davis. After listening to a live concert performance of his, my idea of musical expression was freed from the restraints of classical tradition. The concept of creating a “beautiful sound” with which I grew up was pulverized by the sheer force of Miles Davis’ expression on muted trumpet.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
For me, the challenge continues to be the exploration of the “space” between the notes, and to see the other side of the notes, as if every note I play is a planet, a sphere that shows only one facet but possesses so many – to infinity.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I always think that the next one will be best. In terms of a recording, I was very happy to be able to record Shostakovich’s second concerto live with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. The rehearsal before the performance was shorter than the piece.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I am always happy inside when I play Bach.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Curiosity dictates this, more than planning. Fortunately, there have been many occasions to discover new musical languages, new composers or composers from the past whom I wasn’t aware of before. This largely determines the choices for future programmes.
For my upcoming concerts I had a curiosity to perform something on the violoncello piccolo. I have played the Bach cello suites over the last 30 years, but the Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin are another world, a world unknown to a cellist. Harmonies revealed in complete chords, cascades of notes, and fugues in three or four parts, and the monumental chaconne – this is a language and musical architecture which does not exist in the solo cello repertoire. The violoncello piccolo enables me to discover these magnificent works and to extend my own repertoire.
Playing them an octave lower gives these sonatas and partitas a weight which I think is more robust and has a more ample resonance. Certainly the virtuosity cannot be displayed as strongly as on the violin, but the music is, I think, enriched by this fascinating reinterpretation. Speaking in mountaineering terms, the violin conquers the summit of the piece’s light southern face, and the cello climbs the shadow of the north face, but the mountain is the same.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Thankfully there are dozens of venues where the acoustics give you great sense of satisfaction, but the Sahara desert and the peaks of the Dolomites remain as a special experience because of their unique sound – pure and true.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I have been lucky to play the great concertos of the cello repertoire with the greatest conductors. How can I forget the first time I performed the Schumann Concerto at La Scala with Carlo Maria Giulini? Or the Brahms Double Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado? Dvorak with Pappano? Shostakovich with Temirkanov? Tchaikovsky with Gergiev? Haydn with Muti? Schumann with Ozawa? And Gatti? And chamber music, what can I say? These are times when one understands the meaning of being privileged to be a musician.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Success is not a musical term.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Try to give life to the music.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In terms of music, I hope to be in a world where to take the time to listen to good music is considered worthwhile.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
(Again, in terms of music) Hearing or making sounds, or a melody or harmony that recreates the excitement of a blue sky- that would be perfect happiness!
You’ve recently started a series of concerts at London’s National Gallery, performing in front of works of art. Can you tell us more about this?
The visual is often regarded as something that has stagnated in the past, especially in environments such as museums. The idea was to try to shed the historical context of the artwork, through a programme of music that to my ears had elements in common without being forced to comply with an era or obvious theme.
I chose three paintings:
The first was by Botticini, where “resonance” seemed to be the musical theme. A crowd of angels echoing around a heavenly vortex and rainbows with a quiet world below – so I chose Bach’s Cello Suite No 6, Sollima’s Concerto for cello and live electronics and an old Chaconne that I play with a loop pedal.
The second concert on 24th October will be in front of Holbein’s Ambassadors. This is a picture full of optical illusions, secrets and hidden meanings, so the theme of his programme is enigma. The music is by Biber with the Passacaglia “Mysterium”, Bach’s Violin Partita no 2, which includes the famous Chaconne that hides a epitaph dedicated to his first wife who died in his absence. Also the four Zimmerman studies, which refer to the four elements and are written with an enigmatic rhythmic form.
The third concert (7th December) will be before a painting by Cima da Conegliano, a work where everything takes place in an unadorned and secluded Chapel within an outdoor landscape full of natural beauty. “Distance” is the theme, again with Bach and his Suite No 5 with the Sarabande devoid of harmony, Cage with 4.33 (in this case distance between sound and silence) and a Sonata by Weinberg, who lived in Soviet times where he was marginalised and alone.
Mario Brunello’s cello series continues at the National Gallery, London on Tuesday 24 October. Further information here