Interview Michael Kugel

When our Lord divided peoples with different languages, we got from Him one connective language – Music.



Autographed portrait of Michael Kugel, drawn by DVS President Karin Dolman

Michael Kugel grew up in Kharkov in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), receiving his first musical education there. He went on to study viola, composition and conducting at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory. At the International Viola Competition in Budapest 1975, he won First Prize – ahead of Yuri Bashmet. He built a successful career as violist and teacher in the Soviet Union. Since 1996 he lives in Belgium, and currently teaches at the Maastricht conservatory. He is also a prolific composer and author of books. 

by Kristofer G. Skaug

DVS: What are your memories from that famous competition in Budapest in 1975? Which piece did you play, to win the final?

I played the Bach Ciaccone, and the Bartok Concerto. In the former Soviet Union, it was not possible to travel to these competitions privately. In order to enter this competition, it was an obligation to succeed in the All Soviet Union competition, and the special jury chose 3 musicians to go. It was more difficult that the International competition itself.

DVS: The viola repertoire seems to be full of forgotten composers and forgotten works. What are your favourite “unknown viola pieces”,  deserving of more public recognition?

I’d like to mention George Onslow’s original viola Sonata in c minor (1820). Beautiful music with a small problem: a very poor viola part and very rich piano part. I have created a new edition where the parts are equal.

DVS: What do you think of the emerging trend of viola ensembles, is it just a passing curiosity, or does it have a true value in itself?

Viola ensembles have a true value if the music and musicians are good. For example the Zemtsov viola quartet.

DVS: Did you ever have any plans to compose music for viola ensemble?

I have arranged my ‘Preghiera’ (originally for viola + piano, ed.) for the Zemtsov quartet.

DVS: On the other hand, you have successfully transcribed well-known violin repertoire such as Paganini’s “Carnavale di Venezia”, Beriot’s “Scène de ballet” and the Bizet-Waxman Carmen suite. Do we count this as viola repertoire, or are they still essentially violin pieces?

‘Il Carnevale di Venezia’ which you mentioned is not strictly a Paganini transcription. the full name of the piece is: ‘Il Carnevale di Venezia duo concertante da N.Paganini‘. I took 8 variations from Paganini’s music, added my own 16 variations and a virtuoso piano part (I have played piano and my piano Sonata have been published several years ago). Beriot’s piece is not actually my transcription, I just have made some changes and made the orchestration for strings and percussions.

From my virtuoso transcriptions: H.Ernst – ‘The last rose of summer‘ and ‘The forest king‘, Paganini – ‘La molinara‘ and ‘God save the Queen‘; Wieniawski – ‘Variations on an original theme‘, Tarrega – ‘Requerdos de la Algambra‘. This music is now obligatory in my viola class (not everything of course), like virtuoso music is obligatory in violin, cello and even double-bass education. The solo viola music was written for true soloists, not orchestra players.

DVS: You have a tremendous reputation as a virtuoso musician. Developing such a technique on the heavier viola seems like an act of defiance against the laws of physics. Where does all that “fast and furious” energy come from?

My book ‘Pedagogical Essays‘ was published last year (only in Russian), and in this book I have tried to describe my system, including playing virtuoso music without problems. In this system, physical limitations do not exist. If somebody comes to my class with hands or back pain – in two, maximum 3 months of proper guidance, the pain should disappear. Freedom and relaxation are the key values.

DVS: In your view, which statement is more true?
(a) The techniques of violin and viola are principally analogous, and any differences between them are complementary, so it is good for your development to play both.
(b) If you want to become a really excellent viola player, it is counterproductive to spend any significant amount of time playing the violin.

If somebody wants to combine violin and viola – no problem, but not during a study.

DVS: One of your colleagues (Lars Anders Tomter) said in an earlier interview: “The viola is more introverted (than a cello or violin), its base character embodies ambiguity and tenderness.” Supposing we accept a grain of empirical truth in this statement, what is the relationship between such intrinsic properties of the viola, and the psychology of the musician who plays the instrument?

I wrote a book ‘The history of an era‘, about the Sonata by Shostakovich and the Bartok Concerto, in which I noted that the so-called Swan Songs by two of the greatest composers of the 20th century have both been written not for violin, but for viola: That is significant. Viola is the only instrument very close to the human voice and for sure has a specific color and tenderness. But… if a musician has a talent, the type of instrument he plays is a secondary thing.

DVS: Who was your most important teacher, and which part(s) of his teaching do you pass on to your students today?

My most important teacher was no doubt Yury Kramarov. His signature statement was ‘Never play music without sense‘. I am teaching in this way: When our Lord divided peoples with different languages, we got from Him one connective language – Music. First you have to understand what you are playing, then add your passion; and now stop playing – just speak the music!

Music has its own alphabet, and this alphabet was known 300 years ago in the Baroque, but it is completely forgotten now.

DVS: Your Russian education and early career must have been very different from the environment where you live and work today. What do you miss most in Western European music education and professional life, compared to the former Soviet Union?

Both in the Soviet Union and here I have met fantastic musicians, and I do not have a feeling that I miss something. And my concert life both there and here was/is very rich. Educational life… I still regularly meet with my colleagues professors from the Moscow Tchaikovski Conservatory, and my western colleagues are also very good…

DVS: Being the land of Vieuxtemps and Ysaÿe, it seems no big surprise that you chose to settle in Belgium?

I did not actually choose Belgium particularly, nor The Netherlands. At the right time I just got an invitation, and that is the reason I am here. I have later received many propositions to come and teach elsewhere, but I love it here.

DVS: Which future prospects are you most looking forward to?

I will keep work as long as I can. Next concerts, next students, next classes, next CDs, next publication of my Divertimento for tuba and piano…

Michael Kugel will be lecturing about viola technique at the 2nd National Viola Congress in Ede-Wageningen, on June 27th.