Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007): He was the greatest cellist ever, one of the leading musical presences of his time, and a crusader for good


Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) was 80 and in poor health, so this morning's news of his death in Moscow isn't a total shock. (The shock was seeing that Wikipedia already had his death incorporated!) Nor is the gap left by his passing news, since he had of course been retreating for some time from his once-central position in international musical life. Still, the size of the gap is enormous--as cellist, conductor, genial spirit, and humanitarian.

I heard him described on the radio this morning as the greatest cellist since Casals. With all respect to Casals--a great musician, conductor, and humanitarian--Rostropovich was in another league as a cellist, able to produce any kind of sound on the instrument from a whisper to a bronze roar, with a vast range of colors and shading. The only cellist I'm aware of who might have been in his class is the tragically short-lived Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942).

I'm listening now to one of Rostropovich's numerous recordings of the greatest piece written for his instrument, Dvorak's B minor Cello Concerto. It's the only version of his I have on CD--the 1985 Erato one with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, coupled with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations--but I like it a lot.

Earlier, on the subway, I listened to EMI's CD coupling of the famous 1969 recordings of the Beethoven Triple Concerto (with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic) and the Brahms Double Concerto (with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra) with Rostropovich and his great colleagues violinist David Oistrakh and (in the Beethoven) pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

Because we in the West knew Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Richter as their country's foremost violinist, cellist, and pianist, we tended to assume they must be great pals and play together all the time. They weren't and didn't, of course. Although as far as I knew they all not only respected but liked one another, they were very different sorts of musicians and led very different sorts of musical lives. Still, it's fascinating to hear them scale their playing styles and personalities down to a common idiom for the eerily yet hauntingly self-effacing Beethoven concerto. In this titanic performance of the Brahms, Oistrakh and Rostropovich (who both recorded the piece with various other partners) sound more like their full-blooded selves and still manage to partner each other beautifully.

There's actually a fair amount of Rostropovich on video, but probably tonight I'll pop out the precious video documentation of a collaboration with Richter. At the 1964 Edinburgh Festival, at a single concert that started at midnight (don't ask me!) and was televised live by the BBC, they played all five Beethoven cello sonatas, and the concert is now available as an EMI DVD. It's black and white and mono, but something special, even though again this was in many respects an odd pairing. In fact, the audio recording of the Beethoven sonatas they made for Philips, presumably around this same time, which I happen to love, has always been controversial. Basically Richter seems to have decided to make himself a "Rostropovich-compatible accompanist."

Rostropovich only recorded the Beethoven sonatas once (and did the two sonatas of Brahms in 1984 with another unlikely partner, Rudolf Serkin, in what turned out to be a splendid collaboration), and waited till 1991 to record in full the cello's greatest legacy: Bach's set of six suites for unaccompanied cello. In the invaluable video commentary that accompanies the video edition of the Bach suites, which is part commentary on the music and part musical autobiography (including, for example, a wonderful recounting of his first meeting with his idol, Casals), he acknowledges his extreme uneasiness about finally tackling this project, which he had delayed as long as he could. He'd been playing the Bach suites all his musical life, of course, but committing them to record was something else again.

He secluded himself for several weeks in rural France, at the Basilique Sainte-Madeleine in Vezelay, and went to work. I'm sorry it was a church he picked for the recording site, because the acoustics seem to me less than ideal for the music. Nevertheless, the locale clearly stimulated him, and the absorbing and often riveting performances are what he intended to leave us, and the commentaries--with R often illustrating at the piano (which he plays quite well)--are wide-ranging and consistently absorbing. The performances are also available on CD, but be warned that they contravene his strict stricture about the importance of maintaining Bach's order of the suites (for the obvious reason that in most performances, these included, you just can't get Suites Nos. 4-6 on one CD).

Since the cello repertory is too limited to contain the interests of so vast a spirit, Rostropovich (like Casals) drifted into conducting, and had a long and successful run at it, including his long stint (1977-94) as music director of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, which made him a larger presence in this country than he might otherwise have been. In that time, and until the fall of the Soviet Union, Rostropovich and his wife, the distinguished soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were exiles, having been stripped of their citizenship.

Their problems with the Soviet regime came to a head in the '70s. As Wikipedia explains it:

Rostropovich fought for art without borders, freedom of speech and democratic values, resulting in a reprimand from the Soviet regime. His friendship with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his support for dissidents led to official disgrace in the early 1970s. He was banned from several musical ensembles and his Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978 because of his public opposition to the Soviet Union 's restriction of cultural freedom. Rostropovich left the Soviet Union in 1974 with his wife and children and settled in the United States.

When Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya became nonpersons in the Soviet Union, Slava was quoted as saying that what perhaps distressed him most was the official purging of the Bolshoi Opera history and roster to exclude his wife, who had been one of the company's leading soloists for two decades.

One of the first things the Rostropoviches did when they were able to return to their homeland was to establish the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation (VRF) for the Health and Future of Children [above], whose mission was announced as "to improve the health care of children in the Russian Federation and other Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union."


I couldn't think of a way of working in a reference to a Rostropovich recording for which I have a special fondness: the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata with Benjamin Britten accompanying on the piano. (It was actually written for the arpeggione, an odd and short-lived six-stringed instrument, with frets like a guitar but played with a bow like a cello.) It's not all that consequential a piece, and yet in the hands of two musicians of this caliber it takes wing.

Now, having stumbled across the blog "The Overgrown Path," I feel especially remiss in omitting mention of Rostropovich's relationship with Britten (1913-1976), who was not just among the handful of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and a singularly fine pianist and conductor, but one of the century's most inspired and inspiring humanists. It's one of the signature qualities of Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, that the better musicians and human beings seemed to find their way to their Aldeburgh Festival. It was for Rostropovich that Britten composed his Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata, and three solo cello suites.

"Pliable," the blogger of "The Overgrown Path" (who notes that in the 1970s he was EMI’s international marketing manager, under division director Peter Andry--who, by the way, was responsible for bringing the Soviet superstars together for those recordings of the Beethoven Triple Concerto and Brahms Double Concerto), also shares this anecdote about Rostropovich:

For me, an incident away from the recording studio showed the difference between Rostropovich and other superstar musicians. We decided to celebrate the release of the Haydn record [of the two cello concertos] by inviting Slava to the EMI offices in 1977 to present him with the lavish EMI-Pathé gatefold edition of the concertos. The visit summed up Slava’s approach to life - energy, enthusiasm, passion, but above all a love for music and a love for the human race. He made sure he spent time talking to all the background staff who rarely came into contact with the artists, yet alone superstars. We were working with many other great musicians at the time, but the prospect of Herbert von Karajan visiting our offices, yet alone hugging a secretary was unthinkable.

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At 4:23 PM, Blogger Timcanhear said...

Sounds like he was a great humanist. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the man. As I sit here and wonder the politics of music, I'm reminded as always of my loving mother, a pianist (and daughter of a symphony conductor), who's spirit (often depressed) would be lifted at the sight of a piano. She was a true liberal in every sense of the word, married to a conservative who had the sensitivity of a gnat.
There is something inherently missing in the personality of neo conservatives. I truly think they fear the power of music which they don't understand, the simplicity of a life dedicated to raising spirits through music. Instead, they prefer to drop bombs. They lack the synapse which says you can lift the spirits of human beings far higher with words and music than with sticks and stones.
My uncle died peacefully, on his favorite couch, with his favorite symphony blaring, his head tilted back and arms outstretched. That's how my aunt found him that day. I'm convinced the music he enjoyed is what made him the peaceful, loving man and father that he was. My father, to the contrary, met his maker on the front end of a telephone pole. I've often wondered why music never played a part in his life.


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