Published (shortened version) in The Strad magazine,
London, December, 2007
(The Strad Special Edition: Rostropovich: a Celebration)
On Mstislav Rostropovich
I first met Slava in 1958, when I was a small boy. I was studying piano and cello in Moscow and my father took me to see him to get advice about which instrument should be my major one. Slava listened to me playing piano and cello, and insisted I should concentrate on cello. I immediately sensed Rostropovich's incredible aura, which made it simple for many people to listen to him, speak to him and absorb his ideas of genius.
I remember being at Slava's Moscow premiere of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto in 1959, performed by Slava. I had a feeling that we were entering a new epoch, a new era. I never missed Rostropovich's Moscow concerts, and followed his historic 1963-64 series when, between November and March, he played 34 different cello concertos. In the context of soviet life in the 1960s and 70s his ability to cleanse music from the grime and corrosion laid on it by the universal weariness and mediocrity of those years, had in it a kind of powerful positive charge of freedom, unattainable by any other means.
In the 1960s-70s I attended his open cello class regularly. His teaching was unforgettable, and I still remember many of his ideas, suggestions, jokes and stories. One of my graduation pieces was Slava's own brilliant Humoresque. Since then I have played it very often, and it is always a guarantee for success.
While still a student, I joined the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, which Rostropovich was conducting at the time. I can vouch for the fact that the Bolshoi Orchestra never played better than then. Eugene Onegin, War and Peace, Tosca, which they the Bolshoi musicians had been playing for decades, almost falling asleep in the dusty velvet orchestra pit, they discovered anew with Rostropovich.
It was difficult to see and hear Rostropovich after he left Russia. However, we were able to hear some of his fantastic new recordings. I saw him in Russia again in 1990 and 1991, when he brought the National Symphony Orchestra from Washington to Moscow. I remember his triumphant performances of Schnittke's Second Cello Concerto in 1990 in Berlin, and his Sixth Symphony in New York in 1994, with the composer present. We had a wonderful time together in Amsterdam in 1992 and in Vienna in 1995 when he was working on Schnittke's operas 'Life with an Idiot' and 'Gesualdo'.
In 1995 I organized The Adam International Cello Competition, and Slava immediately gave this his enthusiastic support and agreed to be a Patron. In the last 15 years we met very often, at his concerts in various countries as well as informally in his beautiful homes in London and in Paris. To address Slava using the familiar second person pronoun 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. Slava, especially at the end of his life, tried to stay off grand gestures and lofty pedestals, and I believe his insistence that everyone should address him with the 'thou' form of address was part of this.
Slava could never be old. He lived life at a frenetic pace, and expected others to do the same, but he still knew when to slow down . He was able to listen to music more closely than anyone else – he heard and saw in it what others missed. When Rostropovich played standard works, I often thought: how is it that no one has ever hit on that idea before? His restless energy to fight inertia and his passionate desire to learn at any age is a perfect example for me in everything I try to do. Slava was always in a state of love with whatever he was doing. This was primarily true of music. As for the ladies, he always kept a picture of an old and extremely ugly woman in his pocket. "It helps me to cool myself down when I am inspired by someone really beautiful and young" , he would often say with a smile…