Rostropovich! There are few names that have such powerful connotations for so many different people. The way in which the life and work of Mstislav Rostropovich touched and affected so many is very special, and especially so for a classical musician.
For those, like myself, who were lucky enough to meet him, hear him and see him in action the veritable force of nature that was Slava will be unforgettable! It seemed that he was driven in so many ways by a unique force of energy, that compelled and drew people to him and his art.
The legacy that he left us is foremost a canon of twentieth-century masterpieces for the cello that he inspired and commissioned from some of the most important composers of the time. He also created a style of playing that cannot exactly be emulated but the strength, colour and directness of approach of which has, and will, affect generations of cellists. The strength of purpose in his character, probably deeply concentrated by the adversities in his earlier life, also drove him to be incredibly outspoken politically in defence of friends such as Solzhenitsyn. This, as we know, cost him a lot personally, and forced him to leave Russia. It is clear that had his fame not been already as internationally established as it was at the time that he took such extra-musical risks, we might never have heard of him again! He was of course at the centre of people’s consciousness at other extraordinary world events such as the pulling down of the Berlin Wall, when he memorably played solo Bach right there in the open. This outspoken involvement in political issues was a little reminiscent of the great Pablo Casals who also put himself on the line for his beliefs, but Rostropovich lived of course in an age of greater media communication, and therefore his message could be heard by millions!
My first encounter with the incandescent art of Rostropovich was as a very young cellist when I used to play two of his early recordings over and over. One was a very early collection of encore pieces on Melodiya. The sleeve shows a youthful Slava with an extremely serious expression. The playing is quite wonderful, a sound and breadth of phrasing that I had never before encountered, and a staggering virtuosity that made me try to listen to the LP at slower speeds to try and work out just what he was doing! The other great recording that I grew up with was his Dvorák Concerto with Sir Adrian Boult. This was a performance that alongside his countless live performances, and subsequent recordings, virtually created a new style of playing the piece! Quite soon after that, a new record was in our house, the Britten Cello Symphony and Haydn C major concerto with Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra of which my mother, Anita Lasker, was a member. She is in the original sleeve photo for the LP playing in the cello section! Both these works are of enormous importance to our repertoire. The Haydn had only just been discovered when the recording was made, and is now a central piece in all cellists’ repertoire. The Britten Symphony is the crowning work of the set of masterpieces that the friendship of Rostropovich and Britten inspired. Over twenty years later, I also recorded the Cello Symphony with the ECO, a significant honour, and very important event in my life.
Hearing Slava live was always a special event! His un-histrionic playing was marked by fabulous tone, huge dynamic contrast, and musical conviction of a magnitude that was totally convincing. Although I never actually studied with him, I learned so much from attending his concerts. During the mid seventies, my father Peter Wallfisch played some recitals in England with Rostropovich, and I was able to go to all the rehearsals which was marvellous!
More recently, Slava invited me to be on the jury of his International Cello Competition in Paris. This was also a great honour, and a chance to work with him for several days, and observe his titanic energy at first hand! He would regularly practise half the night through after listening to the competitors all day. After a final lengthy lunch at his apartment hosted by him and Galina for all of the jury, he amazingly announced that he had to fly immediately to Berlin for a rehearsal of the Penderecki Concerto that evening! Most of us could hardly move after the huge amounts of wine and food that had been on offer! This super energy and capacity for concentration despite everything was of course typical of the unique genius of Rostropovich.
In May, immediately following the death of Rostropovich, I was at the Manchester Cello Festival where there was a wonderful tribute to him. It was of deep significance to be able to share with so many of his wonderful students such as Mischa Maisky, Monighetti, Geringas and Gutman, memories of the great teaching and influence that so inspired us all!
Raphael Wallfisch was born in 1953. He studied the cello with Amaryllis Fleming, Amedeo Baldovino, Derek Simpson and Gregor Piatigorsky (who incidentally was the inspiration behind Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto). Since winning First Prize in the Gaspar Cassado Cello Competition in 1977, he has enjoyed an international career as soloist and teacher.