Mstislav Rostropovich

by Azary Messerer

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In Memory of Slava Rostropovich

Published in Financial Review, 17/8/2007, Australia

Mstislav Rostropovich and Azary Messerer, 2002

   Although I’m not a cellist, I think of myself as a pupil of Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava,” as we called him. I had studied in the piano class of his mother, Sofia Nikolayevna Rostropovich, in a Moscow music school. Around 25 years before, Sofia Nikolayevna had taught my mother in Orenburg, an old Russian city in the Urals, and so she often called me her “musical grandson,” giving me special attention.  I played in school concerts, and before the concert she usually asked Slava to rehearse with me.  In 1952, when Slava worked especially hard with me, he was 25, and I, 13.  He was an extraordinary pianist.   He began to study music at the piano, and only when he was about nine he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a prominent cellist.  In the conservatory, Slava simultaneously took classes in cello and piano and afterwards performed world-wide not only as a conductor and cellist, but as an accompanist for his wife, the great singer Galina Vishnevskaya.  My favorite photo has him, sight reading at the piano for Prokofiev.  It was taken that same year–1952.  At that time Slava was Prokofiev’s closest friend.  In the summer he lived at his dacha near Moscow, and they developed a remarkable artistic collaboration which resulted in several beautiful pieces for cello, including the famous Symphonia Concertante dedicated to Slava.  Those were Stalin’s final years, when, armed with the atomic bomb, he turned the ‘cold’ war into something ‘white-hot’, having set North Korea against the South, and within the country stirred up a wave of repression which crashed down on Slava’s idols — Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  In Moscow they constructed metro stations like underground palaces and at the same time atomic bomb shelters, while up above people huddled together in overcrowded communal apartments with one toilet for several families. 

    I used to come for my lessons with Slava to such an apartment on Kozitsky Street where Sofia Nikolayevna, Slava and his older sister, Veronika Leopoldovna, a violinist, lived in two rooms.  I had to sit for ages in the room adjoining the one with the piano, which was always in use.  Either Slava was rehearsing chamber music with other musicians, or his friend, Sviatoslav Richter.  At that time Richter didn’t have his own piano, so he practiced on Slava’s.  Finally it was my turn, and Slava would not only show me how to play, let’s say, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, but would somehow ‘orchestrate’ it, pointing out the places where I should sound like a ‘cello’ or where the ‘violins’ had to project.  And all the while he kept conducting.  He could display incredible tricks at the instrument.  For example, he could pick out melodies with his back to the keyboard.  Joker that he seemed, he really was a great taskmaster.  Once, when a piece started to sound better, he praised me and said, “Well, if you work at this eight hours a day for around ten years, then you’ll become a pianist and you’ll be able to enjoy life.”  Alas, at thirteen, such a prospect didn’t thrill me, and I never did take his advice.

      For me, study with Rostropovich was actually inevitable. My mother, the musicologist Raisa Glezer, had been friends with the Rostropovich family since the 1920s in Orenburg, and she wrote the first article about the young wunderkind’s artistry when he was still unknown.  It wasn’t by chance that when the musicians’ cooperative — “The House of Composers” — was built on Gazetny Street in 1956, Slava and my mother picked apartments on the same floor.  But despite this, he couldn’t move into the new apartment because the composers’ co-op would not grant permission: they considered the space of a four-room apartment too grand for three occupants —  by this time Slava and Galina had a daughter, Olga.  Galina had to phone the Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin, who had courted her at one time.  It was only after the intervention of the Prime Minister that Rostropovich’s family could move to the apartment.  Slava’s neighbours were eminent musicians, among them his friend Sviatoslav Richter.  By that time Slava was already famous, had travelled abroad often, and was quite well-to-do.  He furnished the apartment so lavishly that upon entering, all his friends gasped in awe.  I, for example, was struck by the light over the piano turning on automatically as soon as you sat down at the keyboard.  But most astonishing was the piano itself, a splendid white Steinway, which was brought, if I’m not mistaken, from Vienna.  He was no less proud of it than of his two cellos, which he termed “wife and mistress.” 

        The early ‘60’s marked a thaw in the relations between the Soviet Union and the West.  Prominent musicians began coming to Moscow, and Slava kept up a correspondence with some of them.  I was studying at the Institute of Foreign Languages, and Slava would ask me to quickly translate a letter into English.  There were, for example, letters to Benjamin Britten, with whom Slava was very close.  Slava adored Ben, as he called him, and tried to communicate his enthusiasm in an emotional article, dedicated to the English composer’s fiftieth anniversary (in 1963).  I have kept Slava’s manuscript of the article as a family relic.  When Britten came to Moscow on a tour, Slava invited me to meet him.  That evening they gave themselves up to music making, playing cello works not only written by Britten for Slava, but pieces of other composers.  The duet was so fine that their friends tried to persuade them to tour together and make recordings.

         Slava’s exceptional skills as an organizer were appreciated when, in 1962, at the 2nd Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, he presided over the jury of cellists. In the 1st competition, where the victory of the American Van Cliburn created a sensation, cellists did not participate.  Through Rostropovich’s efforts, the cello competition became one of the most famous in the world.  He assembled a jury of the crème de la crème of cellists from many countries: Gregor Piatigorsky, Gaspar Cassado, Andre Navarro, Daniel Shafran, Pierre Fournier, and other great musicians.  From the United States alone 12 cellists came for the competition, and for the 3rd competition in 1966, which Slava also directed, musicians came from nineteen countries.  Slava found out that Fournier had a birthday during the competition and regaled him with a sumptuous banquet at the Workers’ Center for the Arts.  The highlight of the program that evening was a performance of Rimsky-Korasakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee on twenty four cellos.  All the players were members of the unique club of cellists, organized by Slava at the Workers’ Center.  The latest, thirteenth Tchaikovsky competition that took place last June was declared aCompetition in Memory of Rostropovich and the winners were awarded a special prize in his name.

        I often asked myself what distinguishes Rostropovich from other artists and why he is called the greatest cellist of all time.  He himself always spoke about his playing rather modestly, but once he said: “A performer should not seem a performer.  A performer should seem a creator.  Then he’ll be believed.  Moreover, one can play a work endlessly, but still keep the impression of its being created on stage.”  I think these words reflect the most important feature of his genius.  All his great gifts, his talent as a composer — he wrote a considerable number of works for cello, piano and orchestra, his ability to painstakingly analyse any new work for clavier or any score, his knowledge, acquired through reading, of what the composer experienced in the moment of creating a piece, and of course, his magnetic influence on his listeners, all this was subordinate to one goal:  to create the illusion of the birth of a new work.  Certainly, such an impression was strengthened when he performed pieces dedicated to him for the first time.  Guided by Prokofiev, composers of many countries began to write to Slava.  He premiered more than one hundred cello pieces dedicated to him.

rostropovich_and_prokofievSergey Prokofiev and Mstislav Rostropovich

       In September of 1969, Rostropovich challenged the Soviet regime, having invited to live at his dacha in Zhukovka the future Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had become the sworn enemy of Soviet power.  Zhukovka was considered a government zone; Ustinov, the Minister of Defence, Brezhnev’s relatives, and the renowned dissident scientist Dmitry Sakharov lived close by.  Slava had a three-storied mansion with a large concert hall with an organ where an orchestra and chorus could perform.  Zhukovka was carefully guarded by the police and it was not easy for the KGB to get away with any provocation against Solzhenitsyn.  Government officials began to put heavy pressure on Slava, demanding that he throw out Solzhenitsyn and his friends who were helping him duplicate on a copying machine (brought in by Slava illegally from abroad), his “anti-Soviet” works.  Slava not only didn’t obey, he published a passionate manifesto in defence of his friend.  Although he knew that some form of repression would follow, he was not prepared for total isolation.

       I rarely saw him at that time, but when I did he would say bitterly: “All of you in the press (at that time I worked on the radio) have forgotten me as if on command.”  This was very painful to hear. He looked terrible then — it was spring of 1973.  He had grown extremely drawn, aged, and it was said he had had a heart attack.  Finally he was allowed to leave the country on a tour with his family.  With great effort he managed to organize a “farewell” concert in the Great Hall of the Conservatory.  He himself was forbidden to play.  He was only allowed to conduct the student orchestra.  One of his students, Ivan Monigettti, played Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy on a Rococo Theme.  He played very well, but as they said in the concert hall, “It was good, but a far cry from Slava.”  Rostropovich conducted Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony which communicates with searing power the tragedy of saying farewell to friends and to life.  After this performance everyone understood they were taking leave of Rostropovich for a long time, if not forever.  Many cried.  After the concert scores of people lined up at the dressing room for autographs.  A friend of mine gave Slava a program on which was printed Tchaikovsky’s portrait.  “Come on! I don’t feel right signing my name under Tchaikovsky,” Slava bantered.  But his jokes could not brighten up our dark mood. 

       Subsequently Slava and Galina remained abroad, and in 1978 a notice appeared on the first page of Pravda that he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The evening of the same day my mother called and told me, half hinting, “Slava’s sister Veronika is afraid they’ll seal up his apartment by morning, which means everything will be confiscated, and she’s bringing over the most valuable things right away.  But what’s going to happen to the piano?  First of all, it won’t fit next to mine, and second of all, everyone recognizes it, and I won’t be able to invite over any musicians.”  I blurted out, “Let them bring it right now to my place.”  In a half hour I phoned again and got the answer, “Wait, she’s thinking it over.”   I couldn’t get to bed for a long time, and when I did, I began to see clearly how they carted the white Steinway around Moscow onto Vernadsky Avenue.  I lived on this street in a small apartment of a cooperative house.  The piano was trailed by an escort of black KGB cars.  They dragged it up the narrow staircase to the fifth floor with great difficulty.  When I fell asleep I dreamt I saw this white piano hovering in the air, and I struggled to reach it, open its cherished lid and play just one chord.  In the morning I phoned my mother and found out that at the last minute Shostakovich’s widow had agreed to take the piano at her dacha.  Actually, our fears turned out to be unfounded: the French president wrote a letter to Brezhnev on Rostropovich’s behalf; they didn’t seal the apartment, and the vicious campaign in the press against the “traitor” Rostropovich ceased.  But an old English grandfather clock and several pieces of sculpture remained at my mother’s for a long time.  Veronika was not sure of the fate of her brother’s apartment and took precautions.

      After several years I finally got permission to leave the Soviet Union.  Before my departure, I visited Zhukovka, where Veronika and her family were living, and took many photographs for Slava among which was a shot of that table in the garden where Solzhenitsyn had written for almost four years.  Slava was waiting for me in New York and kept me with him all day, repeating over and over, “Tell me more, old man.”  As I did, we drove to the tailor, where he was fitted for a new tuxedo, then to the offices of Columbia Records, where he signed a new contract, then he had a talk with the composer who was to write a new work for cello in his honour, packing into a day what it takes ordinary mortals at least a week to do.  It was then that I told him about my dreams of the white piano, and that I had kept his letters to Britten and the manuscript of his article.  “Hold on to them, old manWhen I’m dead it’ll be worth something, he said half in jest, half seriously.  In general, Slava loved telling anecdotes.  Many jokes about him circulated in Russia after his departure.  Here’s one of them: once Rostropovich took bets with Reagan about who had the most valuable possession.  They swapped stories about their sumptuous houses and cars.  Rostropovich was clearly losing.  Then, out of the blue, Rostropovich won, “Well, I had a gardener working for me who had a Nobel Prize.”


     We met for the last time four years ago after a concert at Tanglewood, where he played his beloved Dvorak concerto with Seiji Ozawa, who that evening was bidding farewell to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  In 1973 Ozawa lent Slava inestimable support.  When on tour with the San Francisco Symphony in Moscow, the conductor found out about Rostropovich’s destitute circumstances, how the authorities wouldn’t allow him to give concerts, how they cynically ripped up his contracts with foreign impresarios, citing his supposed ill-health.  Ozawa bluntly announced that he would not conduct in the Great Hall of the Conservatory without Slava’s participation.  Slava played magnificently, as well as he did thirty years before, at the time of the flowering of his unique talent.  I sat on the lawn, looked at the stars, and thought that the divine sounds of his cello were flying into eternity.  When I congratulated him after the concert, he said,“You’re right, today, in honour of Ozawa, I really wasn’t playing too badly.”

Translated from Russian by Sylvia Maize

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