To address Slava using the Thou form of address seemed awkward, but at any given moment he knew how to persuade you to do this. It proved to be easy, perhaps because Russians also address God in that way. He was indeed regarded almost as a god by people of the post-war generations, but could be equally natural and down-to-earth, whether talking to a hotel worker or to royalty. And not just natural, he knew how to listen attentively and to understand the situation at whatever level – political, cultural, everyday, domestic. In any conversation he was 200% absorbed in the other person’s problems. And he talked to thousands of people. There was recently a poster displayed in the streets of Moscow, announcing Slava’s appearance in the city as a conductor on the occasion of the Shostakovich Centenary (his last as it happened). A woman went up to it and kissed his face. As if he were a close friend. Or an icon. For many people he was simultaneously both friend and saint. His saintliness, using the word in its original sense of being close to people, not in any sense setting himself apart from them, was always perceptible in everything he did. On the day of his funeral service, as well as late the previous evening, a great crowd gathered at the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. And most of the people there were not musicians at all, they had come because they loved Slava. And the service itself, beginning with the joyous celebratory Easter liturgy, with Slava’s coffin in the centre of the vast church was, I am convinced, exactly what he would have wanted. Singing in a bright major key, exalting resurrection to life eternal. It is said that anyone who dies between Easter and Trinity goes straight to heaven.

Slava himself had once written about the transitory character of a performer: “Performers like us are surely remembered only for the music we play and for how much we understand it.”2 In many respects he himself created this music, starting in 1950, when he worked with Miaskovsky on the cello part of his Second Cello Concerto and shortly afterwards, with Prokofiev on his Symphony-Concerto and Concertino. The last work he premiered was Largo, a concerto by Penderecki, first played by Slava at his two farewell performances as a cellist at the Vienna Muzikverein, 19 and 20 June 2005. And between the first and the last he premiered 149 works for cello: 77 new concertos, 52 new compositions for solo cello and piano, 20 new compositions for solo cello commissioned by Rostropovich himself from leading twentieth-century composers, as well as 75 orchestral works commissioned and performed by him, and ten operas. The excitement generated by these premières was a kind of “gold fever”, in which, in Slava’s own words, from the “musical ore” of eight or nine works one might “dig out” perhaps only one of true worth and permanence. In the first instance such finds were the concertos, sonatas and various pieces by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Dutilleux, Xenakis, Boulez, Penderecki, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Berio, Foss, Piazzolla, Khachaturian, Ustvolskaia, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Pärt, Kancheli, Shchedrin. But these alone were enough to overturn all preconceptions about the cello and to make this cumbersome instrument as extremely popular as it is today.

What would cellists be playing today were it not for Rostropovich? From Russian music Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and Davidov’s concertos. In Western music probably everything would end with Elgar. But of course it is not merely a question of what, but how. In contradiction to his assertion about the ephemeral nature of performance, Slava revealed in it that eternal quality which brings it close to music as part of nature. Even the most detailed notation cannot show everything. Indeed we do not play precisely what is written, not only in the scores of “new complexity” composers, but also in those of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. In the Baroque period and earlier, composer and performer were combined in one individual. It was the same with Rostropovich. He rediscovered the significance of a performer as a person who makes music and reveals its natural currents of energy. Getting to the essence of a score, he tried to experience it to the full, but simultaneously rose above it, freeing himself from its bonds. The extra-textual character of his playing (essentially the same as in popular or folk music) created the impression that he himself was composing or improvising as he performed and very often, in his hands, the music became much more natural, simply better than it really was. He heard and saw in it what others missed.

Theories often associate a soloist with some heroic principle, with the grand gesture, with bombast. Slava, especially at the end of his life, tried to stay off this lofty pedestal, and I believe his insistence that everyone should address him with the familiar Thou was part of this. But in him there was always something large-scale and with the years it grew even larger. He performed fewer chamber works, turning instead to works with orchestra and doing more conducting. Of particular importance to him were the seventeen years he spent as conductor with the Washington National Orchestra (1977-1994) and his long association with the London Symphony Orchestra – now one of the best orchestras in Britain. It was with these two orchestras that he recorded all Shostakovich’s symphonies, as a result of the many years he worked with them. He also often conducted the major orchestras in Europe, America and Japan.

His best performances as a conductor produced an unforgettable impression. His concert with the orchestra of the Moscow Conservatoire before he left Russia in 1974 is still remembered. On that occasion Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was not merely performed – it cried out with pain, it even seemed to shed blood, and the finale sounded like the choir at a Russian Orthodox requiem for the dead. In his last years Rostropovich often performed Shostakovich’s symphonies. He understood and felt, as no one else did, the metaphysical dimension in the gradual development of Shostakovich’s music and, as a result, every climax turned into a catastrophe that could be experienced physically, a final collapse brought about by the accumulation of latent, but fatal changes. It sometimes seemed that Slava had succeeded in capturing the imperceptible undermining movement of time itself. Like Shostakovich, in his final years Slava was preoccupied with the problem of time and the ebbing away of his life.

Slava almost always played from a memory which was phenomenal. Who can forget the series of concerts he gave in 1963-64, when in a single Moscow season he performed thirty four cello concertos, many of them for the first time? Later he gave similar marathon performances (albeit shorter) in the West, right up to the time of his seventieth birthday. It is a well-known fact that he learned Shostakovich’s First Concerto in four days, after which he played it from memory to the composer. When accompanying Galina Vishnevskaia at the piano, he always played from memory. There was the famous occasion when Rostropovich played a joke on the audience by making a well-known impresario turn the pages of a very thick score which had no connection with what was actually being performed. He put it on the music stand upside down, nodding at it emphatically at “appropriate” moments, but of course playing entirely from memory. At a concert in the very recently united city of Berlin he played from memory the extremely difficult Second Concerto by Schnittke, a work completely new to him. When asked how this was possible when he had seen the score only ten days previously, he modestly replied: “It was quite difficult.” He himself described his première performance of Lukas Foss’s Cello Concerto in America in March 1967. According to Slava, he had never had to play anything so difficult to commit to memory. On the day of the concert he did not talk to anyone, needing to apply extraordinary concentration, and the première was a great success.

Officially Slava began teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1948, but in fact he started even earlier than that, taking over from his father, Leopold Vitoldovich, who died suddenly in 1942. Rostropovich’s enforced departure from Russia brought an abrupt halt to almost thirty years of his brilliant classes, public, always open to all. The students called their professor “the power-house” – so stimulating and exhausting was his teaching. This was a unique period, not only in the life of the Moscow Conservatoire, but also in the history of teaching in general. Slava not only worked with great care with each of his students, he also turned every lesson into a kind of competition, so that the high standards of the class and the heat of competition were never lost, never replaced by dreary routine. Rostropovich also brought to his classes for discussion all the new works he himself was playing at the time. Of course Rostropovich did not actually “train” his students’ hands. But there can be no doubt that all his students share the absolutely clear generic characteristics of his “school”. These may be formulated quite precisely: the strong sound, obtained by a special way of using the right hand; the intensity of this sound and its fullness. Also the continuous inner tension (precisely that, tension, not pressure), which is common to both forte and piano passages. The richness, the lushness of tone in the upper register, something which is generally lacking even in many gifted cellists in the West. The healthy, even, but never exaggerated, vibrato, usually by the use of a flat finger, so ensuring better contact with the string. The striking virtuosity and fluency. But above all the epic treatment of musical form, the ability to hear on a broad scale, to work out the climaxes and to build structures as a conductor does, not blurring the whole picture with fine details.3

“Prokofiev died half a century ago,” said Slava in 2003, “but I remember him clearly. That shows how old I am!” But of course he could never be old. Not only did his youthfulness never leave him, it even communicated itself to other people. He disliked cut flowers – this was an expression of his refusal to accept any kind of decay and his passion for a real, full life. He could manage with only three or four hours sleep and, when he was tired, would catch up with a fifteen- to twenty-minute nap in a taxi or a plane, after which he was again totally fresh. In his final years his day began with stretching exercises and prayers. “I belong to myself until 8 a.m.,” he would say, “after that, the endless phone calls and visits begin.” He would arrange to meet people at breakfast or as late as after 11 p.m. He practised the cello after midnight. He was determined never to be tired and simply did not know how to be tired. He never took “time off”. Galina Vishnevskaia recalls that she only once persuaded him to take a seaside holiday, and he was terribly bored, not knowing what to do with himself.

At his eightieth birthday celebrations Slava was very weak and sat at a table, turning with some difficulty to face all those friends and acquaintances (about 600 guests had been invited) who managed to push their way through to embrace him. Not everyone could do this – I myself waved to him from two or three metres away. I remember vividly the way he turned his eyes towards me and the way they shone out sharply with an amazingly intense steel colour from his thin pale face. They seemed to be smiling broadly, to have an extraordinary radiance, an almost supernatural power of enormous concentration, much more penetrating than even a laser beam. We shall remember that look for ever.

Alexander Ivashkin, cellist and conductor, has performed in more than forty countries, including over 50 world premières. Professor of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, he has published 18 books on Schnittke, Ives, Penderecki, Rostropovich and others, and more than 200 articles in Russia, Germany, Italy, the USA, the UK and Japan.

 

1 Extract from: Rostropovich. Tokyo: Shunjusha, 2007 (to be published shortly in Russia and in the USA). Written by this author in close collaboration with the Maestro himself, this book is the first full-scale biography of Mstislav Rostropovich. It includes many important documents from Rostropovich's private archive, his own writings, fragments from his talks with the author, the full list of Rostropovich's premières as a cellist, conductor and pianist, and many unique photos.

2 Rostropovich, Mstislav, Preface to Alfred Schnittke: stat’i o muzyke, (Moskva: Kompozitor, 2004), edited by Alexander Ivashkin, 7.

3 It is interesting to note that one of Slava’s favourite relaxations was watching a boxing match. As he put it: “By watching boxers in the ring you learn how to calculate your powers and to anticipate the blows which may rain upon you.”