Rebel with a rocker's heart

Yuri Bashmet may look demonic but his viola performances are nothing short of divine
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The Independent Culture

Russia's wild man of classical music returns to Britain, to what are certain to be sell-out concerts. Performing alongside the Moscow Soloists, he makes a flying visit to the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on 19 June, before journeying south to the Barbican, on 20 June.

With shoulder-length, silky black hair and saturnine features, Yuri Bashmet looks every inch a Goth rocker rather than the concert virtuoso who revolutionised the orchestral status of the viola. Bashmet first cultivated his demonic style of performance during his infatuation with the Beatles, who inspired his own youthful guitar band back in the days of the USSR. He eventually abandoned the guitar, and concert audiences have been the beneficiaries ever since. In his hands, the viola has been elevated to centre stage after centuries as the Cinderella of the orchestral ensemble.

"I had to fight for it," recalls Bashmet, who celebrated his 50th birthday this year. "But I was always prepared to risk controversy. Otherwise I would never have made the career I have with my beloved viola."

And he has never fallen out of love with his homeland. A long-time resident of Moscow, where he is now a professor of viola at the Moscow Conservatoire, which he attended as a young man, he opts for a modest lifestyle and a simple life philosophy: "If I have to choose between money and love, I will always choose love."

Bashmet's career first sky-rocketed as a consequence of his winning first prize at the International viola competition in Munich, in 1976. His success was a sensation - at the time, solo viola recitals were unheard of - but it took Bashmet a further five years to achieve any real recognition for the instrument commonly used as polyphonic back-feel for more established instruments, the violin and piano. "The viola was always considered as something merely between the violin and cello", says Bashmet. "But, I say, like Bach, the viola can be at the very heart of the performance. It may be more difficult to make the audience love you; it is an aristocratic, mysterious instrument, and you have to have experienced a lot before cradling one in your arms. You have to come through it all, and the viola is suddenly transformed like Zolushka (Cinderella) and becomes the belle of the ball."

Bashmet travels the world with his "Cinderella" - a Paolo Antonio Testori, made by an Italian craftsman in 1758, and bought 30 years ago for 1,500 rubbles - and has found fame in Moscow, Paris, New York and Amsterdam. He has also inspired composers to write solo orchestral works for the instrument, and enjoys an especially productive relationship with Alfred Schnittke and Giya Kancheli. His hope for the future is that the viola will one day be the equal of the concert grand piano at the Carnegie Hall. It's going to be a tough call, but as he says laconically: "In life, nothing is fixed - nothing!"

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (01865-305305; 19 Jun; Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891; 20 Jun