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Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina shares postcard of Venice through the ages

Anastasia Kobekina's debut album with Sony Classical revolves around the city of Venice and the impressions it leaves.
Johanna Berghorn
Sony Music Entertainment
Anastasia Kobekina's debut album with Sony Classical revolves around the city of Venice and the impressions it leaves.

After Venice reopened to tourists following months of pandemic-era shutdowns, Anastasia Kobekina traveled to the "City of Canals" as it slowly sprung back to life. The Russian cellist shares a musical postcard of that trip for her Sony Classical debut album, Venice, released on Feb. 2.

This is not the Venice of gondoliers and bright carnivals, but a darker, more mysterious one filled with mystery. "It's a lot about this city also disappearing in vain," Kobekina told NPR's Leila Fadel, referencing the rising waters that threaten to sink the city.

She paints this portrait through the music of composers from the past 400 years, with both tangible and tangential connections to Venice, from English Renaissance lutenist John Dowland to electronic music innovator Brian Eno and Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw. Joining her are a few other soloists playing the theorbo, lute, viola, bass and viola da gamba, as well as the Basel Chamber Orchestra.

Vivaldi makeover

Venice's favorite son, Antonio Vivaldi, gets star treatment here via several of his concertos. Most striking is Kobekina's fiery interpretation of the allegro movement of his Concerto for Cello, Strings and Basso continuo in A minor, RV 419. Tapping and plucking wildly at the cello, the 29-year-old brings a decidedly contemporary flavor with echoes of jazz, pop and drum and bass.

"I had no idea how it would turn out, and it's probably one of my favorite tracks on the album because I keep the memories of this energy that was in the room and how we experimented with musicians from the Orchestra Basel, they were just adding the elements, improvising here and there," she said.

"We were just swinging and enjoying this just to go into a completely crazy direction. You know, it's not orthodox Vivaldi, but I love the folk side of it."

There's also an instrumental take on the secular cantata "Che si può fare" (What Can I Do) by Venetian-born Barbara Strozzi, who was among the very few women who published their own compositions in the 17th century.

Other pieces have more esoteric connections to Venice, like Shaw's "Limestone & Felt," which the composer has said mimics "sounds echoing and colliding in the imagined eaves of a gothic chapel." Hard and soft contrast throughout in ripples of sound. The piece begins with powerful pizzicato plucked strings, signaling a major page turn after Vivaldi's D minor Concerto that immediately precedes it.

Beyond 'cello sound'

Kobekina, who plays both Baroque cello and the instrument in a "modern" setup, thus manages to blur historical contexts, pulling pieces out of their original time or format. She spoke of seeking to "go away from the cello sound," emulating the human voice and experimenting with non-traditional ways of playing the instrument.

"It was actually the first time that I really enjoyed working in the studio," Kobekina said. "You can experiment and look at this mirror of truth about your own playing and see how far you can go. I think with the microphone being so close to the instrument, I can fade away and play the most fragile, pianissimo, or go in the next second to that absolutely extreme thing."

Sometimes, the cellist said, she worried her playing had gone too far, that it might be a "scandal." But "then I go to the control room and listen and it's actually just enough."

Her playing can be feverishly swift but also lithe. While the latter could thin out a performance in a large concert hall, it comes across as supple and sensitive on the recording.

Kobekina says she seeks to go beyond the typical cello sound in her playing by using non-traditional techniques to achieve desired effects.
Johanna Berghorn / Sony Music Entertainment
Sony Music Entertainment
Kobekina says she seeks to go beyond the typical cello sound in her playing by using non-traditional techniques to achieve desired effects.

Vocal on Ukraine

The album is bookended by a theme from one of the earliest operas and variations on the same by Kobekina's composer father, Vladimir Kobekin. Claudio Monteverdi's L'Arianna is believed to be his second opera, composed between 1607 and 1608. But most of the music was lost. All that remains is the "Lamento," and that's the scene spun off here.

Kobekina, who was born in the industrial Russian city of Yekaterinburg, deliberately chose to feature Ukraine's most acclaimed living composer, Valentin Silvestrov. The 86-year-old became a refugee when he fled Russia's invasion of Ukraine two years ago, settling in Germany.

"First of all, it's an incredible piece, so beautiful in its purity and and simplicity of the melody that is so haunting. And secondly, of course, I want to play Ukrainian music," she said.

"From the first day, it was very important to make it clear about my position to make these difference between the Russian government making the absolute impossible aggression against the neighboring country ... I just felt I couldn't keep silent."

If Kobekina appears especially earnest when speaking of Silvestrov and his music, it's not by chance. She has condemned what she herself terms "Russia's war against Ukraine," performed with Ukrainian artists and played at charity concerts benefiting Ukraine. But that didn't prevent concert organizers from scrapping her planned appearance at Switzerland's Kartause Ittingen in March 2022. Kobekina thus joined other Russian artists removed from concert programs around the world early in the wake of the war.

"By my name and my nationality, I'm representing, of course, Russia. And to me, [it] was important to say that there are not only those who follow Russian propaganda and carry it on, but there are also people like me and so many others who are absolutely against and absolutely disgusted by what is happening now, what is led by the Russian government against [the] Ukrainian people."

The radio version of this story was edited by Olivia Hampton and produced by Barry Gordemer. The digital version was edited by Majd al-Waheidi.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]