Alexander Ivashkin: Cellist and musicologist who courted danger in the Soviet Union with his bent for contemporary pieces


Alexander Ivashkin was one of the most important musicians to emerge from the last years of the Soviet Union, forging a career as cellist and academic and achieving equal distinction in both endeavours. He was as articulate and persuasive on a concert platform as on a lecture podium, his gangling gait and ready humour endearing him to all sorts of audiences.

Ivashkin – "Sasha" – was unusual among major musicians in the degree to which he performed the music of own time. A photo gallery on his website shows him with some of the most eminent composers of his day, among them John Cage, Edison Denisov, Henri Dutilleux, Sofia Gubaidulina, Luigi Nono and Alfred Schnittke, a close personal friend.

Although he had already been publishing important contributions to musicology in the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century, it was the appearance in 1996 of his biography of Schnittke that gained him widest attention as a writer; almost 20 years later, it remains the only biography in English. In total Ivashkin wrote, or edited, some 20 books, among them appreciations of other cellists (Knushevitsky, Shafran, Rostropovich) and studies of Shostakovich, Penderecki and, less predictably, Charles Ives. His articles, booklet essays and other obiter scripta approach 300 in number.

He was born in Blagoveshchensk in the far east of Russia and manifested such talent as an infant that by the age of five he was a pupil at the Gnessin Institute for gifted children in Moscow. He showed such even-handed proficiency at both piano and cello that it took the intervention of Mstislav Rostropovich – later to become mentor and friend – to decide in favour of the latter. His conducting teachers at the Moscow Conservatoire included Boris Khaikin, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Valery Poliansky.

Ivashkin's first degree was in cello, piano and historical musicology, but it was as a musician that he made his initial impact. In 1978 he was appointed co-principal cello in the orchestra of the Bolshoi theatre and co-founded the Bolshoi soloists, a chamber orchestra of which he became the artistic director. His insistence on performing contemporary music was an act of considerable artistic courage in Brezhnev's Russia, and his concerts provided shafts of light in the otherwise stiflingly conventional concert-life of the Soviet Union. Naturally, he wrote many of the programme notes himself.

Ivashkin was also one of the first Soviet musicologists to be allowed to pursue research in the US, with his book on Ives in view, and he took the opportunity to meet a number of avant-garde American composers, John Cage and George Crumb among them. Around the same time, in 1989, he made his first visit to Britain, performing with the Bolshoi soloists at the Almeida festival in London.

His contacts with foreign composers were unusual when such a thing was regarded with suspicion, but the consequences could sometimes be amusing. Ivashkin was guiding the visiting John Cage – an adherent of macrobiotic food – back to his Moscow flat, where his wife, the cellist Natalia Pavlutskaya, was preparing a sumptuous Russian meal. Ivashkin watched in horror as Cage ran into the grass outside the tower block where the locals brought their dogs to relieve themselves and starting picking weeds and grass. When Natalia opened the door, Cage held up his unsavoury harvest and announced: "I have brought my supper".

Ivashkin's ascent in the west began in the south, with his appointment in 1990 as professor of cello and chamber music at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. It was his next position, a chair in performance studies at Goldsmiths College in London from 1999, and then director of the performance/research centre for Russian music that gave him the springboard that made him a truly international figure, his recording career snowballing apace with his writing and conference activities.

A lasting testament to Ivashkin's work at Goldsmiths is the Alfred Schnittke archive at the Centre for Russian Music there. It was founded in 1999, when Ivashkin arrived, and is now a resource of international importance.

He was also an inspiring supervisor for his students, insisting on an awareness of the circumstances attending the composition of a piece of music. He was dismissive, for example, of Western writers on Shostakovich who failed to take account of the deadweight of the Soviet system on every aspect of life there.

His website proudly lists his cello and research students, and they in turn recall his generosity of spirit. He also established, with his wife, the Adam international cello competition in New Zealand; among its laureates it boasts some of the major young cellists now active on the international concert scene.

During his time with the Bolshoi chamber players Ivashkin made some 20 recordings, mostly for Melodiya, the Soviet label. After his first CD as a solo cellist, in 1993, he went on to record almost 40 more, among them the complete cello music of Gubaidulina, Kancheli, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Roslavets, Shostakovich, Alexander Tcherepnin – and Schnittke, of course. His last release – of Britten's cello music – contained the first recording of a sonata Britten had written at the age of 14.

With my own label, Toccata Classics, he released two CDs: one of Schnittke discoveries and the other of music by his friend Nikolai Korndorf, which he wanted, at short notice, to launch during a conference. The discs arrived just in time, I grabbed a cab and triumphantly gave him the first copy – and, drained by his own efforts, he entirely forgot to mention it.

Such apparent absentmindedness was part of Ivashkin's relaxed manner: he often seemed to look at the world as if there were something essentially comic about it. But his dizzying track record of conferences, symposia and seminars bears witness to considerable organisational flair, not least since they had to be planned in the interstices of concert tours, guest-professorships, jury-memberships and master-classes.

Any good cellist knows that the instrument has to sing, but Ivashkin's playing turned that lyricism to good effect: he had a narrative quality to his delivery, focusing the listener's attention on the unfolding of the musical argument. He was not only an outstanding musician: he was a superb story-teller. He died of complications from pancreatic cancer.


Alexander Vasilievich Ivashkin, cellist and musicologist: born Blagoveshchensk, Soviet Union 17 August 1948; married 1969 Natalia Pavlutskaya; died London 31 January 2014.

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