Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich 1927-2007

There are stars in our musical firmament, usually preeminent in one sphere, but occasionally, perhaps once a century, along comes a megastar. Rostropovich was such a one. If Casals put the cello on the map in the first half of the twentieth century, then in the latter half of that century Slava - the diminutive of his first name, it means 'glory' - may be said to have extended that map, and coloured it too.

But he had other talents in music: he played the piano marvellously, notably in recitals with his wife, Galina Vishnievskaya, the most eminent Russian dramatic soprano of her day. He also composed in his young days and was a pupil of Shostakovich until that day in 1948 when he arrived at the Conservatoire for his lesson to find - as he told me one day in his own brand of English - "On wall I see notice saying Shostakovich no longer teacher, too low standard teaching." Slava was also in his later days a conductor who could make any orchestra play its heart out for him. But as well as all that, he was a rare human being, an exceptionally brave one who defied the Soviet government by housing the ailing and officially oppressed author Solzhenitsin; he also wrote to the national newspapers attacking the regime. As a result, both he and Galina were deprived of tneir citizenship. Finally, after six decades of over-working (never more than four hours sleep a night), over-playing, over-living, his health gave out and he succumbed to cancer, surviving just long enough for an 80th birthday party in the Kremlin hosted by Putin himself.

On the day that Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Slava was due to play a concerto in the Royal Albert Hall. His first thought was to cancel but then he decided go ahead. Loud opposition from some of the audience ceased as soon as he began to play...of all works, the Dvorak! Nobody who was there that evening will forget it: Slava played with tears streaming down his face, leaving no one in doubt as to where his sympathies lay.

His father was a respected cellist and teacher, after whose early death Slava supported the family. He fairly shot up as a soloist soon becoming the most famous and loved cellist in the world. Not for him the usual Russian po-faced attitude towards the public; his ugly mug beamed at one and all, and it was nothing unusual for him to go round after a performance, giving a hug to every member of the orchestra.

There were no limits to his technique and he had exceptional comprehension of the music he played, everything by heart and also memorising the accompaniments of every work he played, be it chamber music, solo or orchestral. Yet everything sounded spontaneous, he was a powerhouse of energy and passion, his repertoire was vast: in a series of concerts given in Russia, Paris, London and New York he played no less than 27 concerted works. More than two hundred compositions were written for him, many of them learned in a matter of days. Some of the most noteworthy performances were of sonatas and concerto works composed by his friends Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich; his recordings of these pieces reach the very summit of performance and interpretation.

Before launching himself in the West, Slava toured extensively in the Soviet Union, from the icy north to the tropical south, bringing music to unfamiliar ears and always making friends. Elizabeth Wilson's excellent new biography (Faber, £25) makes the claim that, as well as all his other activities, Rostropovich was something of' a genius at teaching; she was a pupil at the same time in Russia as Mischa Maysky, Karine Georgian and Jacqueline du Pre. He expected a lot from his adoring pupils and got it; classes were sporadic, yet once started, they could go on well past midnight. As well as music he encouraged his students to think for themselves and to appreciate, as he did, drama, literature, architecture and painting.

Was he then a perfect human being ? Not quite, of course; he was a good and kind man but he could drink like fish, had an eye for the girls and was an inveterate prankster. He would serve up a plastic fried egg to a nervous new pupil and, in a recital with Galina singing Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death he would play from an upside-down vocal score of Trovatore, nudging the page-turner into action every two minutes. Another time, accompanying Schumann's Frauen Liebe und Leben, he suddenly played the fourth song with the hands reversed. Galina realised that some joke was going on and was naturally furious.

They had many shouting matches but they usually ended in smiles. She knew better than to curb him too much. Despite provocations she stuck to him, supported him in his political battles. And she helped him to spend prodigious amounts of money, on cars, clothes and property - property in Russia, New York, Paris, London - they even had a house in Aldeburgh (Would one ever forget the first time he played at the Suffolk festival ? I remember him before one concert: he stood on a path near Orford Church, smiling at concertgoers and shaking everybody's hands.) The couple were both acquisitive and, charmingly, ruthless. One time Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten were cajoled into taking with them to Moscow a hundred-weight of gravel because it was needed for the rock-garden outside Slava's dacha (sand luggage ?).

As time went on Slava realised that conducting revealed errors less than playing the cello so latterly he beat more than he bowed, 18 years directing the Washington Orchestra and guesting all over the world. Every concert was a joyous event, almost like a party. His interpretations was often self-indulgent, details at the expense of the whole, tempi sometimes slower than Klemperer's. But audiences mostly accepted that, because he knew and had been intimate with the likes of Shostakovich, Britten and Prokofiev; his readings of their works were authentic.

All in all: what a performer! what a musician ! and what a man !. Indeed we shall not look upon his like again.

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