One of the most powerful memories from my childhood is of being taken by my father to hear Rostropovich in person for the first time, at the Royal Festival Hall. From the moment the great man stepped through the curtain and onto the platform, I was transfixed. He swept on, a strange crown of rather unexpected hair circling his bald pate, bowed to the audience more times and more rapidly than I had ever seen anyone bow, and then sat down to play; his shoulders bunched up, his chin jutted out, and we all knew that his life depended upon every note he was playing. The work was Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto Op. 125, a cellistic tour de force which had been written for him. The huge sound he made, the way he leapt around the cello like a bull-fighter taming a dangerous beast, took us all onto a new level of excitement; this was a hero in action. I knew that I would always remember this performance – and of course I still do.
He was a superman – there is no other way to explain the phenomenon that was Rostropovich. Anyone who ever came into contact with him would agree: the animal energy, the electricity, the sheer irresistible charisma of the man was completely inexplicable.
Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich (later known to his friends, and to millions of others, as Slava – “Glory”) was born on 27 March 1927 in Baku, Azerbaijan; or to be more precise, at 19 Kolodezni Street – recently re-named Rostropovich Street (the house is now a museum devoted to Slava’s life.) His father was a cellist and composer, whose rather meagre career did not mirror his outstanding talents; one gets the feeling that a lot of Rostropovich junior’s powerful determination may have been fuelled by his father’s frustration. Leopold Rostropovich refused to fight for professional success: “If they want me, they will come for me”, he would say – but “they” never came. Young Mstislav, growing up in the stiflingly competitive world of the Soviet Union, would not make the same mistake. His musical talents seemed to be almost unlimited; not only did he win countless competitions as a cellist, he also excelled as a pianist (playing Rakhmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto for his final exams at the Moscow Conservatory) and a composer (his teachers included both Prokofiev and Shostakovich). It took him some time to emerge from the Eastern bloc, but when he did, he took the musical world of the West by storm. His interpretations of the standard cello repertoire were breathtaking; so were the piano accompaniments he regularly provided (all from memory, incidentally) for the recitals of his wife, the famous soprano Galina Vishnevskaia. He taught at the Conservatories of both Moscow and St. Petersburg, his students including Jacqueline du Pré, Natalia Gutman and a host of other famous cellists. But it was his performances of the innumerable works written specially for him that placed him in a totally unique position in musical history. He also earned a place in political history through his defence of Solzhenitsyn and later the beleaguered Yeltsin, as well as his symbolic act of unregretful farewell to Soviet Communism when he played his cello in front of the collapsing Berlin Wall.
There has never been an instrumentalist who has done as much for their instrument as Rostropovich did for the cello. Through his combination of insistent charm, musical brilliance and an unerring instinct for targeting the finest composers, he managed to wring now-celebrated masterpieces out of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, and literally hundreds of other works (some more, some less, famous, and some still awaiting their turn to become part of the standard repertoire) from composers ranging from Walton, Messiaen and Penderecki to Piazzolla and Ravi Shankar. He recorded almost all of them (and also most of the many works that he commissioned as a conductor), as well as almost the entire standard cello repertoire, in performances that will remain benchmarks for future interpreters.
My personal contacts with him were limited (sadly) but wonderful. The first time I played under his baton was in a performance of Haydn’s D major concerto at one of his many Cello Congresses, this one in St. Petersburg. More significant, though, was the week when he invited me to San Francisco to give several performances of Britten’s Cello Symphony (composed for Slava). I approached the week with a mixture of excitement and terror; but he was the soul of warmth and generosity, constantly encouraging me while offering superb advice about the work. He even put up with my constant questions about his life and his friendships with other great men – I couldn’t leave him alone! Of course, I asked him about Prokofiev at every opportunity. The first conversation was distinctly uncomfortable: in St. Petersburg, I mentioned excitedly that I had helped to commission a new orchestration, from the composer and Prokofiev expert Vladimir Blok, of Prokofiev’s unfinished Concertino for Cello Op. 132 – originally completed (excellently) by Rostropovich and orchestrated (appallingly, I think) by Kabalevsky. Immediately I felt a pair of extremely steely eyes on me, and realised I’d made a blunder. Slava did NOT like the idea of his work being tampered with – even though it was really only the orchestration that was being changed. I tried to stammer my way out of the situation, but soon realised that the best idea was to change the subject subito!
In San Francisco, I kept to safer topics. I asked him how long he had spent with Prokofiev; Slava told me that he had lived at the great man’s dacha on and off for four years. Prokofiev would write out his new works in piano score, with the instrumentation scribbled in, and Slava would write out the full scores (I could see why he’d be sensitive on the subject of Prokofiev’s orchestration!). I had heard that the young Slava had started wearing cravats in imitation of Prokofiev. He confirmed this, adding that he could only afford two suits at the time, so he kept wearing different-coloured cravats to give the impression that he was constantly changing his clothes! He remembered Prokofiev calling him once, sounding very excited: “Slava, come over – I have something!” The “something” was a new theme for the second movement of his old cello concerto, Op. 58; this led to Prokofiev’s idea to rewrite the concerto – which of course was eventually to become the Symphony-Concerto. I asked him whether Prokofiev was a warm personality: “No, distant”, was the reply. “But if he liked you, then very warm.” He also told me that Prokofiev preferred the music of Haydn to that of Mozart – “more fantasy”. Haydn’s Farewell Symphony somehow reminded Slava of Prokofiev. He also said how much Shostakovich loved the Symphony-Concerto: “He say Symphony-Concerto one of greatest genius works of Prokofiev”. According to Rostropovich, Shostakovich’s use of both timpani and celeste in his first concerto was directly influenced by the Symphony-Concerto. One slightly frustrating note (in retrospect) was sounded when I asked him about the Fugue for solo cello by Prokofiev that Slava played just once (as far as I know), in London some years ago. He was very enthusiastic about it: “I must publish it.” However, it is still hidden away somewhere – I wonder if we will ever see it? Finally, Slava told me that the day after he got home, he was going to visit Prokofiev’s grave; fifty years may have passed, but for Rostropovich, Prokofiev was still an important presence in his life. As Slava himself will be for so many of us for the rest of our lives.
Cellist Steven Isserlis’ connection with Prokofiev goes back a long way: he played the Concertino with piano at his first ever recital, at age 14 and four years later played the Sonata Op. 119 at his London debut recital. He gave the first UK performance, and made the first recording, of the Andante for solo cello; and champions the Concerto Op. 58, which he has performed at Prokofiev Festivals in St. Petersburg and Manchester. On a more poignant note, he played at the funerals of both Lina and Oleg Prokofiev. He has written two books for children about music, both published by Faber, and recently released a recording of the Bach Suites on the Hyperion label.