Tomorrow night sees a rare New Zealand concert-hall appearance by Alexander Ivashkin, playing Brahms' Cello Concerto with the Auckland Philharmonia.

The Russian cellist - Professor of Cello at London University - made his presence very much felt in New Zealand when he was based at the University of Canterbury.

"Being born in the far east of Russia, on the Chinese border, with parents who travelled a lot, I must have something in my blood that pushes me to do the same thing," Ivashkin says.

Having survived the cultural deprivations of Russia in the 70s -"stagnation would be a mild word" - Ivashkin opts for understatement when he describes his home country as "not very quiet" in the late 80s.

He says Gorbachev "was interested in self-promotion rather than helping Russia and it was only after things went out of control that things changed for the better".

Then came the move to Christchurch, where "the very nice people were one of my strongest impressions. They really wanted to help".

Ivashkin helped us, too, with his profile as a musician. He launched the Adam International Cello Festival and recorded several CDs, including a brave double disc of Australian and New Zealand solo cello music, Under the Southern Cross. Since leaving, he has recorded more copiously within the Russian repertoire as well as publishing, through Phaidon, an authoritative text on the great Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.

"He was a very dear friend," Ivashkin says, "and originally he simply asked me to meet with him on a regular basis and record our conversations. I won't say I'm an expert, although perhaps I am now - by default."

Schnittke's music is "very important for a certain generation of Russian people because it spoke about many things through music when it was impossible to use words", Ivashkin continues. "He could describe the situation in Russia in a very symbolic way. But Schnittke's music ... just as with Shostakovich, is essentially music - despite all the discussion about the political essence of it, these composers will not mean the same for future generations."

To Western ears, Schnittke's music can be a little on the wacky side. A violin and piano take on Silent Night, veering from the cloyingly sentimental to aggressive dissonance. Did the man have a sense of humour? "He didn't really make jokes," says Ivashkin, "but in a way he never did take anything completely seriously and you can feel this in his music, with its mixture of styles. What is a tragic, dramatic piece for some people is just a joke for others. It's always ambiguous and double-sided."

For the moment, Ivashkin is fully engaged with the newly discovered Brahms Cello Concerto, which is a reworking of the Double Concerto. "The composer had first intended it for just cello," Ivashkin says, "and the violin part was a gesture towards Joachim, with whom he was not on very good terms."

Ivashkin's voice now has a real Russian fervour: "I love the Double Concerto, but not everything is perfect. The cello is often inaudible when it's accompanied by the orchestra. The more I play the solo cello score the more I feel it is the original version."

Though the Brahms will be receiving only its second performance worldwide in this form, perhaps one day one of our orchestras will bring Ivashkin back to give the New Zealand premieres of some of the Schnittke works.


*Who: Alexander Ivashkin, with the Auckland Philharmonia
*Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday, 8pm