On Friday morning 27 April 2007 my husband (who would normally go to extreme lengths to avoid disrupting anything so sacrosanct) telephoned me in the middle of a rehearsal with the Chilingirian Quartet to tell me he had just been told that Mstislav Rostropovich had died. Of course, this news was not totally unexpected: I had heard from several distressed friends and relations who had been present at the formal event in Moscow attended by President Putin in honour of his 80th birthday, how desperately ill and drawn he had looked. And although there had been little public recognition of the fact (certainly not from the man himself, nor from the amount of work that continued to pour out of him), most of us were aware that for some time a growing proportion of that apparently inextinguishable life force had been devoted to fighting illness.
Now, almost three months later, the only thing to which I can compare the void in my life is the loss of a parent. I do not say this to be melodramatic or to claim undue intimacy or special relationship, but to explain that for me as a cellist the seven years I spent as his student – five in his class at the Moscow Conservatoire and two as a post-graduate – during which my entire horizons (not simply musical) were almost wholly occupied by his ideas, his personality, his expectations of me, the sheer breadth of his experience in music and in life generally, gradually gave place to a permanent, if background, awareness of his existence in my musical psyche, an ever-present fact, so to say, of life. I am sure this is not an unusual feeling among the many musicians who had the good fortune and faced the challenge of being part of Mstislav Leopoldovich’s Class 19 in the Moscow Conservatoire. If there had ever been any doubt of this, Elizabeth Wilson’s recently published account [See Wilson, Elizabeth, Mstislav Rostropovich: cellist, teacher, legend (London: Faber, 2007)], from the inside, of this unique institution is evidence of what I am saying. It is this loss that we, his students, are now experiencing.
He was one of those rare people in any walk of life whose public persona transcends the normal boundaries of the most widespread recognition and reputation to become, in a manner of speaking, public property. This has only a little to do with today’s lazy media addiction to manufacturing heroes (or villains) for public consumption, and everything to do with the fact that some people are just so big that they cannot be confined to the sphere of activity in which they have originally attracted attention. This explains, I suppose, why the world at large was able to assume that “‘Slava’” belonged to it. Naturally, there are good reasons for this, certainly he was never exactly a shrinking violet avoiding or discouraging publicity, he relished being an actor on the world stage. But for us students he was not “Slava”, he was “Mstislav Leopoldovich”, someone of legendary distinction and achievement in the very activity we were ourselves struggling to master, a being from another dimension (I am thinking here particularly of myself and my compatriot fellow-students who could only dimly imagine what it was like to be accustomed to foreign travel), who was for some extraordinary reason prepared to devote time and energy to helping, encouraging and challenging us to follow in his footsteps. Mstislav Leopoldovich is how he was to us, and how he remained, although among ourselves we referred to him more simply as “Chef”. The world, both East and West, may have thought it owned him, but inside he was always his own man, nobody’s property but his own. Even as students, alternately petrified, stimulated, challenged, inspired, we sensed this, and it was one of the things that made him special.
An important aspect of this independence, which we realised almost from the first day (and it was initially quite a shock), was the extremely un-Soviet flexibility of his approach to teaching. Soviet society, and for that matter Soviet education, was nothing if not uniform, controlled: you basically expected to be told what to do and you followed the rules with more or less application and enthusiasm. Mstislav Leopoldovich did not do this: his guiding principle was to find out what lay within a student and to use a highly personal application of psychology, imagery and the power of suggestion to make the student realise this potential. To do this successfully, of course, the teacher has to have a laser-like understanding not only of everything connected with instrumental performance – technical command, musical insight, psychological orientation, communication, the ability to listen – but of the person. Rostropovich had this ability to an astonishing degree, and it is what could make lessons with him such an unnerving experience: sometimes it was almost like being emotionally x-rayed. Now that I am myself a teacher I know what demands such an approach makes on both sides; it is the diametric opposite of analysing, say, a particular technical problem and saying: “now this is how to do it, my way”. He did, in fact, very little of this, and it is revealing that most of his teaching was done from the piano, not from the cello. He was, as everyone knows, an outstanding pianist, but that was not really the point: the point was that the piano was the most convenient medium for conveying the particular musical expressivity he wanted to get across.
In my own case, like the great majority of students accepted into Class 19 (because, for obvious reasons the approach doesn’t work if you really have to explain the basics of instrumental technique), I was well prepared at a technical level (I had been studying with my father at the rival Gnessin Institute) and was equipped to play the main works of the repertoire before I ever entered the class. Mstislav Leopoldovich could see at once that something needed to be unlocked in me to allow the music to flow out instead of merely being obsessively polished. “Gnessinskie shtrishoshki,” he would shout, “Rukha, you need to get rid of those Gnessinskie shtrishoshki!” (“Rukha”, short for starukha (old woman), was what he called me almost from the first moment; I was 18. The target of his criticism was my “little, inhibited Gnessin-style bow strokes”.) “Let it all hang out”, he might have said, had we been in California. We weren’t in California, we were in Moscow, but the meaning is universal and I understood it, although acting on it cost me untold effort. Later, his reaction to my performance of the Brahms E minor sonata in class was to tell me: “Rukha, you haven’t shed many tears in your life!” A Class 19 experience none of us who witnessed it will ever forget was the lesson Chef gave to Jacqueline du Pré (not someone, to put it mildly, who ever suffered from Gnessinskie shtrishoshki) on the second movement of Prokofiev’s titanic Symphony-Concerto. Chef at the piano and Jackie (actually he always it made plain he regarded her more as a colleague than as a student) wound each other up to ever more electric incandescence as he illuminated for her the soul of Russia he found embodied in the big, broad tune.
I didn’t agree with every nuance or interpretive image in every work he urged on me nor, despite the overwhelming authority he exerted, would he have expected or wanted this. The object, with me as with all his students, was to open doors of technique and imagination and motivation, to extend us much, much further than we could ever have thought we could possibly go, to enable us to realise our full potential as musicians. In this short memoir I have said nothing about his exceptional qualities as a performing musician, nor the incalculable legacy to the cello repertoire, the tangible fruits of the inspiration and support he unfailingly offered to composers of whom the Big Three of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten were only three of many. Nor have I mentioned the moral stature of a man who, past-master though he unquestionably was in the exploitation of the peculiar byways of the Soviet system to his own and others’ advantage (and he was no slouch at the ways of the Western world either), would not in the last resort allow anyone, however powerful, to compromise his integrity or that of people he respected. All these sides of his life are well known. Two years ago, with typical generosity to his “cello grandchildren”, in other words some of my students and others at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, he agreed to come and give a master-class there. We did not know it, but he was already gravely ill, and his schedule as punishing as ever, but at 78 years of age he still took a full day to travel up with me from London to Manchester and back (nine hours or so in the car), to give a three-hour class of characteristic ebullience, insight and humour, and to accept gracefully the College’s hospitality. On the way back he was tired (I was exhausted) and didn’t talk much. Dropping him back at his London flat in Maida Vale, after I had thanked him I said something like: “Well, at least you can have a bit of a rest now.” “Oh no, Rukha, now I’m going to practise. I have this new Penderecki piece to learn, I’m playing it for the first time in Vienna soon.”
On 24 April 1918, Prokofiev wrote in his Diary: “Yesterday was my twenty seventh birthday. 27 is a fateful number for me, bringing both happiness and unhappiness.” However unhappy a day 27 April 2007 was for the world of music, 27 March 1927 had proved to be one of the happiest.
Karine Georgian’s international career as a cellist was launched after her taking the First Prize and Gold Medal at the Third Tchaikovsky International Competition. For over twenty years she was Professor of Cello at the Musikhochschule in Detmold, Germany. She now teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and conducts masterclasses worldwide. Details of Karine Georgian’s repertoire and discography, along with audio and video samples of her playing, are available on her website.