I feel I have known Maxim Rysanov for at least four years, through his revelatory 2008 Brahms CD and, in 2010, a recording of Bach solo suites that might have had their composer wishing he had written them for viola.

The Ukrainian violist is in Auckland next week as one of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's most eagerly anticipated soloists, playing Alfred Schnittke's Viola Concerto.

In conversation, Rysanov can be coy, with a fanciful sense of humour. I ask him about our country's image on the other side the world, and his first response is that "one can't bring any bugs into your country" - a change from the usual platitudes about pristine scenery and Lord of the Rings.

He explains his decision to move from Russia to England in 1996, even though he would have been studying with the legendary Yuri Bashmet in Moscow. "Bashmet was travelling so much that receiving two lessons a year would have been a privilege," he shrugs.


England was a liberating experience for a young student accustomed to stern Russian ways. "I had been very good at doing what I was told, and now it wasn't so important. I was never forced to do anything except play with the orchestra. My teacher gave me the choice of finding the solutions I preferred."

The results can be heard in Rysanov's recordings, the most recent being a charming Beethoven excursion on Onyx Records, including transcriptions of the D major Cello and Piano Sonata.

"Some pieces are completely unknown. So often Beethoven is thought of as serious, revolutionary and depressed. These turn the coin around; apart from the cello sonata, most of this music is youthful and light-hearted. It's good to show that Beethoven wasn't angry at people all of the time."

Does he ever get cross that the viola, which he endearingly describes as "an instrument full of love and possibilities," has not attracted as many composers as the violin and cello?

"Of course," he sighs. "I get frustrated and paranoid all the time, believe me."

In fact, he transcribes the music for his instrument, including Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, which he played in the 2010 BBC Last Night of the Proms, a performance well worth investigating on YouTube.

"This is deeper music than people give it credit for. And, as a lot of the original cello writing is for the top string, it is only medium-range for the viola, and much more physically comfortable for the player."

Rysanov is impatient to play the Schnittke with the APO, a work written just before the Russian composer had the first of a number of debilitating strokes.

"I think Schnittke felt that his end was coming," Rysanov muses. "Geniuses are like animals in that way and perhaps for him this piece was his Requiem."

The violist sees the concerto as a dramatic struggle for life. "In the second movement there's this very beautiful passage which starts romantically, and then lots of harsh sounds from the orchestra try to drown its beauty."

He explains how Schnittke could be a little more forthright about Soviet repression than Shostakovich. "He was able to cut into the ugliness around him and show us the truth. It's a very serious piece."

Rysanov is also looking forward to the special partnership with the orchestra that this work entails. "So many interesting things happen that it's almost like playing in a large chamber group. I am deeply involved with what goes on in the orchestra rather than just closing my eyes and running 100m."