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Alexander Ivashkin, cellist


Published (shortened version) in the 'Three oranges' magazine,
London, October, 2007

Alexander Ivashkin
"Sunflower"[1]
(in print: "Radius Solis")

Rostropovich himself often spoke of death, but always lightly. He treated it, in his own words "with a certain amount of interest." [2]. He even conceived a frivolous plan to arrange a flight on Concord [3] so that his body should reach the New World before the official local time of his death. And another of his ideas was to have his death-mask displayed on the Eiffel Tower so that it could hang there peacefully and be seen by everyone. A doctor friend of his foresaw an easy death for him: "People like you," he said, "die as easily as they live." When Rostropovich was fatally ill, after several serious operations, he was still able to celebrate his eightieth birthday on 27 March, even though in January French doctors had given him only a few days to live. When he said his last goodbyes to everyone, he was still able to talk and smile happily. Thus he was able, if not to conquer death (even though in November 2006 he had vowed to "get over it"), at least to divert its coming onto a path of which he himself was in control. In the Barvikha Sanatorium near Moscow, where he was resting in preparation for his birthday celebrations he asked for the score of "Carmen", planning to conduct it after his birthday [4]. And at the beginning of April he was considering going to Baku, where an opera specially written for him was waiting – "Passionate Expectation" by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. And inevitably he had many concerts planned in the West: a full timetable for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, was already in the computer of Liolia Maksimova, his secretary 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. He was indeed regarded almost as a god by people of the post-war generations, but could be equally natural and down-to-earth, whether talking to a hotel-worker or to royalty. And not just natural, he knew how to listen attentively and to understand the situation at whatever level – political, cultural, everyday, domestic. In any conversation he was 200% absorbed in the other person's problems. And he talked to thousands of people. There was recently a poster displayed in the streets of Moscow, announcing Slava's final appearance in the city as a conductor (for the Shostakovich Centenary). A woman went up to it and kissed his face. As if he were a close friend. Or an icon. For many people he was simultaneously both friend and saint. His saintliness, using the word in its original sense of being close to people, not in any sense setting himself apart from them, was always perceptible in everything he did. On the day of his funeral service, as well as late the previous evening, a great crowd gathered at the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. And most of the people there were not musicians at all, they had come because they loved Slava. And the service itself, beginning with the joyous celebratory Easter liturgy, with Slava's coffin in the centre of the vast church was, I am convinced, exactly what he would have wanted. Singing in a bright major key, exalting resurrection to life eternal. It is said that anyone who dies between Easter and Trinity goes straight to heaven.

Slava himself had once written about the transitory character of a performer: "Performers like us are surely remembered only for the music we play and for how much we understand it." [5]. In many respects he himself created this music, starting in 1950, when he worked with Myaskovsky on the cello part of his Second Cello Concerto and shortly afterwards, with Prokofiev on his Sinfonia Concertante and Concertino. The last work he premiered was Largo, a Concerto by Penderecki, first played by Slava at his two farewell performances as a cellist at the Vienna Muzikverein, 19 and 20 June 2005. And between the first and the last he premiered 149 works for cello, 77 new concertos, 52 new compositions for solo cello and piano, 20 new compositions for solo cello commissioned by Rostropovich himself from leading twentieth-century composers, as well as 75 orchestral works commissioned and performed by him, and ten operas. The excitement generated by these premières was a kind of "gold fever", in which, in Slava's own words, from the "musical ore" of eight or nine works one might "dig out" perhaps only one of true worth and permanence. In the first instance such finds were the concertos, sonatas and various pieces by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Dutilleux, Xenakis, Boulez, Penderecki, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Berio, Foss, Piazzolla, Khachaturian, Ustvolskaya, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, P?rt, Kancheli, Shchedrin. But these alone were enough to overturn all preconceptions about the cello and to make this cumbersome instrument as extremely popular as it is today.

From 1962 onwards, on Slava's initiative, cellists joined violinists in the Tchaikovsky Competition, and dozens of other cello competitions and festivals began to appear. One of the most important became the Rostropovich Cello Competition in France, initially in La Rochelle, later in Paris (1977, 1981, 1986, 1990, 2994, 2001, 2005). This competition is a cello forum on a vast scale, in which until recently more than a hundred cellists took part. So many performers wanted to participate in the last competition that a preliminary selection had to be made in various countries, with Slava himself taking part in the process. For his competition Slava commissioned compulsory items for solo cello which subsequently became central to the modern cello repertoire: works by Xenakis, Penderecki, Amy, Saariaho, Schnittke, Shchedrin, Stroppa, Ali-Zadeh. To these must be added a series of twelve woks for cello which Rostropovich commissioned for Paul Sacher's seventieth birthday celebration in 1976: by Lutoslawski, Berio, Britten, Boulez, Ginastera, Halffter, Holliger, Klaus Huber, Fortner, Henze, Beck, Dutilleux. The prizewinners, indeed all those who were merely competitors form a huge cellist elite of brilliant young musicians who improbably found themselves competing against each other. The jury at Rostropovich's competitions has long demonstrated its objectivity – Slava was especially pleased when the 2005 Grand Prix was awarded unanimously to a hitherto unknown young lady from Germany, Marie-Elizabeth Hacker(?)*. He remarked that somehow she reminded him of Jacqueline Du Pr?, who once studied under him in Moscow. He had the feeling that this would be his last competition and talked about this quite freely, having come to it directly from the operating table in Switzerland. The atmosphere in the Op?ra and Chatelet concert halls was airless and oppressive and Slava looked very tired.

What would cellists be playing today were it not for Rostropovich? From Russian music Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and Davydov's concertos. In Western music probably everything would end with Elgar. But of course it is not merely a question of what, but of how. In contradiction to his assertion about the ephemeral nature of performance, Slava revealed in it that eternal quality which brings it close to music as part of nature. Even the most detailed notation cannot show everything. Indeed we do not play precisely what is written, not only in the scores of "new complexity" composers, but also in those of Bach. Mozart, Beethoven. In the Baroque period and earlier, composer and performer were combined in one individual. It was the same with Rostropovich. He rediscovered the significance of a performer as a person who makes music and reveals its natural currents of energy. Getting to the essence of a score, he tried to experience it to the full, but simultaneously rose above it, freeing himself from its bonds. The extra-textual character of his playing (essentially the same as in popular or folk music) created the impression that he himself was composing or improvising as he performed and very often, in his hands, the music became much more natural, simply better than it really was. He heard and saw in it what others missed. When Rostropovich played standard works, one often thought: how is it that no one has ever hit on that idea before? As, for example, when he played the coda of Dvorak's concerto extremely slowly. At his last comparatively recent concert in London jointly with Rozhdestvensky there was even an argument between the two old friends, soloist and conductor. The conductor saw the coda as being "in two", while the soloist saw it "in four". And in fact this unusually slow tempo "in four" turned out to be the only one possible in the context of what Rostropovich was doing. One also recalls his playing of Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata with Benjamin Britten at the piano. The tempo of the opening was extremely slow. But it was unforgettable. Slava himself explained that in rehearsal, at the beginning of the first movement, after the eight-bar phrase on the piano, he had held back – so magical was the opening as played by Britten.

And one had the same sense of discovery at the performance of "Eugene Onegin", with an unusually slow elegiac opening adagio, and of "War and peace" at the Bolshoi, when Rostropovich was still conducting there in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Absolute hush!", the maestro called out, and so brought the theatre orchestra down to a level of piano unheard of before or since. There was the same feeling at the recording of Puccini's "Tosca". This was begun, but immediately aborted, at the time when Rostropovich was out of favour with the soviet authorities, who were supported by a number of quite well-known musicians [6]. When Rostropovich was conducting, even music which frequent repetition had made boring, almost irritating, was made enjoyable. He lived life at a frenetic pace, and expected others to do the same, but he still knew when to slow down and so be able to listen to music more closely than anyone else. All his concerts were like that. In the context of soviet life in the 1960s and 70s this ability to hear what was unheard, 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. Freedom has of course always been characteristic of the romantic type of performer. Only in Rostropovich's case the freedom was not an external performance gesture or ostentation for effect, it was an inevitable product of the meaning of the music itself and the situation in which it was being performed. This is why all his performances proved to be at one and the same time a breath of freedom and a break-through into something unheard.. They created a burst of energy which extended its force-field to all those present – like sunlight. It was with good reason that Rostropovich was called a sunflower. He was one of the first 'authentic' performers, playing the music as it might have sounded at the very moment of its creation, before it had been somehow distorted by common usage. Speaking at his funeral, Natalia Solzhenitsyn said that he was always in a state of love with whatever he was doing. And this was primarily true of music. No wonder that Rostropovich's popularity exceeded that of a pop-star. In fact what he did eliminated all boundaries between what was serious and what was not, what was for an elite and what was for everyone, what was professional and what was popular – in short the boundary between art and life. Everyone knew his name.

Theories often associate a soloist with some heroic principle, with the grand gesture, with bombast. Slava, especially at the end of his life, tried to stay off this lofty pedestal, and I believe his insistence that everyone should address him with the familiar second person pronoun was part of this. But in him there was always something large-scale and with the years it grew even larger. He played fewer concerts with piano. He performed more with an orchestra and did more conducting. Of particular importance to him were the seventeen years he spent as conductor of the Washington National Orchestra (1977-1994) and his long association with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was with these two orchestras that he recorded all Shostakovich's symphonies, as the result of the many years he worked with them. He also often conducted the major orchestras in Europe, America and Japan. His final American tour was in March – April 2006 (Seattle, Washington, New York). The Washington concerts proved to be his farewell to the National Orchestra, which he had conducted for so long, the prestige of which he had raised to such a high level.

His best performances as a conductor produced an unforgettable impression. His concert with the orchestra of the Moscow Conservatoire before he left Russia in 1974 is still remembered. On that occasion Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony was not merely performed – it cried out with pain, it even seemed to shed blood, and the finale sounded like the choir at a Russian Orthodox requiem for the dead. In his last years Rostropovich often performed Shostakovich's symphonies. He understood and felt, as no one else did, the metaphysical dimension in the gradual development of Shostakovich's music and, as a result, every climax turned into a catastrophe that could be experienced physically, a final collapse brought about by the accumulation of latent, but fatal changes. It sometimes seemed that Slava had succeeded in capturing the imperceptible undermining movement of time itself. Like Shostakovich, in his final years Slava was preoccupied with the problem of time and the ebbing away of his life.

When Slava died on 27 April many European and American newspapers repeated the same facts: his work with Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, his friendship with Solzhenitsyn, his exile from Russia, his performance at the Berlin Wall, his appearance at the White House in Moscow in 1991. All of these are correct, yet they somehow fail to catch the true essence of the man.

Many people – wholly in the style of the so-called "objective" press obituaries – preferred to make the comment that as a conductor Rostropovich was not as successful as he was as a cellist. And it is true that Slava bore no resemblance to the kind of crude time-beating exhibitionist who makes theatrical and passionate gestures with his arms. He was directing people's energies, not controlling traffic. He was a conductor when he was holding his cello, when he was teaching, sitting at the piano, and in life itself, anticipating and arranging it in advance. "I never learned to conduct, but I had many teachers," he would often say, and of course he was referring not merely to conductors. And it is worth recording that he was almost the first outstanding solo instrumentalist to be in charge of a large professional orchestra. This involved the new idea of treating conducting as a way of making chamber music, opening new channels, creating new stimuli in orchestral playing for many years to come. Many people followed in his footsteps. He was the first to demonstrate that in conducting a purely manual technique is by no means what is most important and that Stravinsky was not always right in his assertion that "conducting rarely attracts original minds." Slava tried to see every member of the orchestra as a soloist and as an individual, a colleague on equal terms with the conductor, and in this he succeeded. His debut as a conductor was in Gorky (now Nizhnii Novgorod) in 1962. (It was in Gorky too that Shostakovich made his first and last appearances as a conductor, with Rostropovich as soloist) Slava's first performances in the West as a conductor were in London in 1974 and in Washington in 1975. It is a matter for regret that in his final years he gave hardly any concerts in Moscow and did not direct a single Russian orchestra. But his work in Washington with an orchestra of a much more modest standard achieved fantastic results.

Among Slava's papers there is a file marked "List of good deeds". Of course this list represents only a small fraction of what he did to help other people. The "good deeds" number many thousands. At Slava's eightieth birthday celebrations in the Kremlin what President Putin said about him was remarkable for the informality and accuracy of the turns of phrase he used: "I remember Slava toiling his way from St. Petersburg to Moscow, bringing medical equipment and supplies for the sick. Yes, toiling his way, just as he toiled his way to Russia with heavy luggage full of Russian treasures, his one purpose to bring them back to Russia." Likewise he "toiled his way" with two enormous suitcases full of manuscripts by Russian composers, carrying them himself, unwilling to trust anyone else. And in the same way he ran all over the place after his friends, anxious to give them financial help. The composer Giya Kancheli recalls how, when times were difficult for him, Slava actually fell over near a lift when he was trying to catch Kancheli on the stairs and give him a packet of money. And he did this sort of thing for dozens of people.

After Slava had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 for his support of Solzhenitsyn, he received many letters from Russia. It took them a long time to reach him, often by a roundabout way, but they usually did. These letters, now in his archive, are almost all requests for help. Financial help, help with finding work, in arranging concerts, contacts outside Russia. And Slava always did help. There is an eloquent letter from A. Dedyukhin, Slava's accompanist from 1940 to 1970, signed, for reasons of security, with his nickname "Khorya": "Dear Slava, we seem to have lost touch completely – I wrote to you in Paris at the beginning of March at your old address, but I don't know whether you received my letter. I have nothing positive to tell you about myself – I'm living in poverty and debt. I am ashamed to ask you for help, but please, if it is at all possible, try to find a way of rescuing me. I apologize for my impertinence. One day we shall meet again – in my life I want nothing as much as that. At present I can't complain about my health and strength. I warmly embrace you. You are always in my thoughts. Yours – Khorya". And Slava went and bought a large bar of gold and sent it via his sister Veronika to Dedyukhin so that he could divide it into separate pieces and use it to live on. It would have been quite impossible to send him any money.

One thing is certain. Slava could never have been the president of a country or even the director of a large business. For one very good reason. He always wanted to do everything himself and disliked asking other people to do something for him. A feeling of personal obligation and personal responsibility in everything he did and was asked to do remained with him to the very end of his life. Even people he encountered casually, autograph hunters (who may well have later auctioned off his signature) he never refused.

"How can you not respond, " he would say, "when people ask you to do something?" He answered every letter. Even when he was fatally ill, he flew to Japan in November 2006 to undertake a highly demanding tour, with concerts every day and exhausting rehearsals. Japan was one of his favourite countries; they loved him there. Returning from Japan, he travelled to Voronezh for the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Shostakovich; they had been waiting for him there for a long time. Before going to Japan he found time to open the Shostakovich Apartment-Museum in St. Petersburg, which he had purchased with his own money, only with considerable difficulty reaching agreement with the people living nearby. Slava donated this museum to the city . [7].

The windows of his Paris apartment on the Avenue Georges Mandel were clearly identifiable from the street: on the curtains was depicted a two-headed eagle, the symbol of "Eurasian" Russia. Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya lived here from the end of the 1970s. In this apartment you would meet another Slava: the connoisseur of Russian art and history. He and Galina acquired a unique collection of Russian paintings, enamel ware, jewellery, furniture, porcelain. Slava always took a keen interest in any auction in which Russian artefacts were for sale. Sometimes he made bids by telephone from Japan or America. Slava's bedroom in Paris was another gallery of pictures collected with exquisite taste. He had already transferred part of this unique collection to his house in St. Petersburg. Having gained permission to rehouse a large number of people living in communal apartments on the Kutuzov Embankment, Slava bought 39 separate apartments, each with private facilities, for the people living in the building, consulting each of them individually and reaching agreement on the details. And now in a beautifully restored mansion on the Kutuzov Embankment, right underneath the gun barrel of the cruiser "Aurora", there is collected, and still to be collected everything that was acquired abroad, including painting by Chagal, Serov's theatre curtain for Fokine's ballet "Scheherazade" (1911), hundreds of unique examples of ancient Russian applied art, paintings by younger generation Russian artists, letters, scores – everything that it was possible to acquire and bring back to Slava's homeland.

On his return to Russia, full of excitement, open-hearted, wanting to be there, to perform and conduct there more frequently (and for that reason sometimes turning down offers of much more lucrative concerts in the West) Slava did not forget about other things needed by his people and his country. "The vaccination of children and the building of hospitals, the purchase of essential expensive medication – these are at present my most important priorities." That is what he said in 2000. He did his cello practice at night, anxious to take advantage of every spare moment. In his final years his concerts were a source of enormous material benefit to Russia. He may well have commanded enormous fees. But he gave away even larger sums of money. In the West he gave benefit concerts to raise money for the building of a boarding school for backward children in Germany, for funding backward children in Italy, concerts to raise money for poverty-stricken Russians in France and America, for the award of numerous scholarships and prizes in the arts, for funding to assist gifted young violinists, for building conservatoires, for the establishment of the Menuhin School (of which, at Menuhin's own request, he became president after the death of the great violinist), for the building of the St. Luke concert hall and educational centre for the London Symphony Orchestra, for the preservation of Venice, for repairs to Carnegie Hall, raising funds for the old and the sick, for building the church of Christ the Saviour, for building a home for Russian war veterans, for a memorial to Shostakovich, for repairs to the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, for funding the State Institute of Literature in St. Petersburg ("Pushkin House") – it is simply impossible to give a complete list. At Slava's own request the profits from the production of "Khovanshchina" at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1995 were paid into a fund for retired theatre staff living on miserly pensions. He gave his fee for the Saratov concert dedicated to Shostakovich's centenary (about 20,000 dollars) to the orchestra for the purchase of instruments. The Rostropovich Foundation assists with the training and career of talented young Russian musicians. Very recently Slava organised a "demonstration concert" of his grant-aided students at London's Wigmore Hall, himself responsible for all its details. The Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation sponsored a vast vaccination campaign against infectious diseases in many parts of Russia, the building of a maternity home, the renovation of hospitals, child nutrition, the purchase of equipment for child medical centres. Hundreds of charity concerts and master-classes throughout the world represent not only vast sums of money, but also a vast amount of personal effort. Rostropovich earned this money not by selling oil, but by sheer hard work and intensive labour.

An enormous number of people were pleased to see and hear him back in Russia. Not only in Moscow, but also in the provinces, where he was pleased to travel (Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov, Samara, Voronezh, Orenburg, Kurgan, Sarov). And what pleased Slava was the fact that people who had criticized him in 1974 (and unhappily there were many such) were now sorry for what they had done. Like the true Christian he was, he was happy to forgive them. Yevgeny Svetlanov, entering the Conservatoire Great Hall for a rehearsal with the State Symphony Orchestra the day after Slava's farewell concert in 1974, walked across the hall and pronounced in a loud voice: "Cleanse thyself!", as if he were trying to drive away an evil spirit in the person of Slava. Shortly before Svetlanov died on 18 November 2000 he wrote to Rostropovich: "Respected Mstislav Leopoldovich! Dear Slava – let me address you as I once did. You were right. It is still not too late to cleanse my soul!!! I am guilty before you. But I never wished any evil on you or your family. I am not that sort of person I am guilty before you, the greatest of musicians. In my eyes you are equally great in all you do And now I put my trust in the Word of God: 'Repent, and you will be forgiven.' Yours ever – Yevgeny Svetlanov." [8].On reading the letter, Slava at once telephoned Svetlanov and their friendship was renewed. When he arrived in Moscow after Svetlanov's death, Slava went and knelt by his graveside

Slava almost always played from a memory which was phenomenal. Who can forget the series of concerts he gave in 1963/4, when in a single Moscow season he performed thirty four cello concertos, many of them for the first time? Later he gave similar marathon performances (albeit shorter) in the West, right up to the time of his seventieth birthday. It is a well-known fact that he learned Shostakovich's First Concerto in four days, after which he played it from memory to the composer. When he was accompanying Galina Vishnevskaya at the piano, he always played from memory. There was the famous occasion when Rostropovich played a joke on the audience by making a well-known impresario turn the pages of a very thick score which had no connection with what was actually being performed. He put it on the music stand upside down, nodding at it emphatically at "appropriate" moments, but of course conducting entirely from memory. At a concert in the very recently united city of Berlin he played from memory the extremely difficult Second Concerto by Schnittke, a work completely new to him. When asked how this was possible when he had seen the score only ten days previously, he modestly replied: "It was quite difficult." He himself described his premi?re performance of Lukas Foss's Cello Concerto in America in March 1967. According to Slava, he had never had to play anything so difficult to commit to memory. On the day of the concert he did not talk to anyone, needing to apply extraordinary concentration, and the premi?re was a great success. Musicians who played in the student orchestra at the Britten Festival in Aldeburgh in 1970 still remember how Slava was playing at the final rehearsal of a concerto written for him by Sir Arthur Bliss, when the ink was scarcely dry on the page of the score. Britten, who was conducting, stopped the rehearsal in some dismay, asking that it be postponed until three o'clock that same afternoon. A few hours later Slava could perform the work by heart as though he had been playing it all his life [9].

Officially Slava began teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1948, but in fact he started even earlier than that, taking over from his father, Leopold Vitoldovich, who died suddenly in 1942. Rostropovich's enforced departure from Russia brought an abrupt halt to almost thirty years of his brilliant classes, public, always open to all. The students called their professor "the power-house" – so stimulating and exhausting was his teaching. This was a unique period, not only in the life of the Moscow Conservatoire, but also in the history of teaching in general. Slava not only worked with great care with each of his students, he also turned every lesson into a kind of competition, so that the high standards of the class and the heat of competition were never lost, never replaced by dreary routine. Rostropovich also brought to his classes for discussion all the new works he himself was playing at the time.

Many of his former students say that Slava did not concern himself with technical matters, leaving this to his assistant Stefan Timofeyevich Kal'yanov. With all due respect to Kal'yanov's memory, this is a gross exaggeration. Of course Rostropovich did not actually "train" his students' hands. But there can be no doubt that all his students share the absolutely clear generic characteristics of his "school". These may be formulated quite precisely: the strong sound, obtained by a special way of using the right hand; the intensity of this sound and its fullness assisted by the use of a curved spike – an idea adopted from Paul Tortelier and now almost forgotten by many young cellists in the West [10]. Also the continuous inner tension (precisely that, tension, not pressure), which is common to both forte and piano passages. The richness, the lushness of tone in the upper register, something which is generally lacking even in many gifted cellists in the West. The healthy, even, but never exaggerated, vibrato, usually by the use of a flat finger, so ensuring better contact with the string. The striking virtuosity and fluency. But above all the epic treatment of musical form, the ability to hear on a broad scale, to work out the climaxes and to build structures as a conductor does, not blurring the whole picture with fine details [11]. After his departure from Russia and until the end of his life Slava taught only sporadically. One of the winners of his Paris competition, Wendy Warner, studied under him at the Curtis Institute in America. Another American cellist, David Finckel (he now plays with the Emerson Quartet) followed Slava wherever he could, and Rostropovich worked with him in the green room before and after his concerts. Rostropovich also taught Han-Na-Chang. Before taking lessons from him, she had been the surprise winner of his competition at the age of eleven. At various times his pupils included Frans Helmerson, Young -Chang Cho, and Xavier Philips. Slava himself often referred to Boris Pergamenschikow as one of his pupils. And of course there were hundred of musicians who played at his numerous master-classes, which he always gave free of charge. At the International Cello Competition in Kobe (Japan) in 2005 Slava directed no fewer than 1069 cellists and worked personally with many of them. His two final classes were in Florence in October 2006 and in Voronezh in December the same year. The Florence classes – for cellists, pianists and chamber groups were, as was usual, extremely intensive, and included everything: from Slava at the piano, advising pianists on the correct use of the pedals, to Slava thinking aloud about Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He was already seriously ill, but whenever he was teaching or reminiscing he seemed to regain his strength. This particular master-class was devoted to the music of Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich – the three composers with whom he was particularly closely associated. What he said about the opening bars of Shostakovich's Trio is etched in one's memory: "The opening (cello harmonics – A.I.) must sound as quietly as if it were coming from another world. It is not so much a melody as a feeling of whistling – all that is left of the soul of a dead friend."

"Prokofiev died half a century ago," said Slava in 2003, "but I remember him clearly. That shows how old I am!" But of course he could never be old. Not only did his youthfulness never leave him, it even communicated itself to other people. He disliked cut flowers – this was an expression of his refusal to accept any kind of decay and his passion for a real, full life. He could manage with only three or four hours sleep and, when he was tired, would catch up with a fifteen- to twenty-minute nap in a taxi or a plane, after which he was again totally fresh. In his final years his day began with stretching exercises and prayers. "I belong to myself until 8 a.m.," he would say, "after that, the endless phone calls and visits begin." He would arrange to meet people at breakfast or as late as after 11 p.m. He practised the cello after midnight. He was determined never to be tired and simply did not know how to be tired. He never took "time off". Galina Vishnevskaya recalls that she only once persuaded him to take a seaside holiday, and he was terribly bored, not knowing what to do with himself. After one of his concerts with an orchestra at the London Barbican Slava bought a bottle of vodka at the bar and, having filled everyone else's glass, drained his own full one, without anything at all to eat, letting the last drop fall on his head. Everyone else got slightly drunk, but Slava remained just as lively, witty and bright, looking at least half the age of all the fans around him. And he was at that time nearly 74 years old. He himself said on that occasion that, not knowing why, he could never get drunk. In all probability this had something to do with the unique way he had of controlling his outward energies and the inner strengths of his personality. The incredible concentration of energy, which everyone could experience physically while he was playing, continued to make itself felt even after his concerts, making him seem almost superhuman. His final triumphant "Don Quixote" in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra was truly memorable. With Yuri Bashmet on the viola and Seiji Ozawa conducting, the performance of 4 November 2000 was a performance, not only of phenomenal technical virtuosity, but also unforgettable for the depth of its confessional penetration [12].

At his eightieth birthday celebrations Slava was very weak and sat at a table, turning with some difficulty to face all those friends and acquaintances (about 600 guests had been invited) who managed to push their way through to embrace him. Not everyone could do this – I myself waved to him from two or three metres away. I remember vividly the way he turned his eyes towards me and the way they shone out sharply with an amazingly intense steel colour from his thin pale face. They seemed to be smiling broadly, to have an extraordinary radiance, an almost supernatural power of enormous concentration, much more penetrating than even a laser beam. We shall remember that look for ever.

Alexander Ivashkin, 2007


1. At Rostropovich's eightieth birthday celebrations in the Kremlin all the guests were presented with souvenirs to remind them of his first name and two of his nicknames: a miniature bottle of vodka labelled "Slava", a little bag containing sunflower seeds (nickname: "Sunflower") and a Buratino doll (nickname: "Buratino"). []
2. All unacknowledged quotations are taken from conversations between the author and Mstislav Rostropovich, 1995 - 2006. Rostropovich also gave the author permission to work in his personal archive. I express my deep gratitude to Larisa Chirkova for her help in my work on the archival documents. []
3. The "Concord" was a supersonic passenger aircraft which made the flight from Europe to the USA in three and a half hours, arriving in New York earlier by local time than the time it took off from London or Paris. Because of technical problems which finally led to a catastrophic crash in Paris, "Concord" flights were discontinued. Rostropovich loved the aircraft and was very keen to be one of the passengers on its final flight on 26 November 2003, but was too busy to do so. []
4. According to Manashir Yakubov who visited him at Barvikha. []
5. Rostropovich, M., Preface to Alfred Schnittke. Stat'i o muzyke [Articles about music], Moscow: Kompozitor, 2004, p 7. []
6. Extract from a letter of 5 April 1974, addressed to Leonid Brezhnev and signed by soloists of the Bolshoi Theatre: V. Atlantov, I. Arkhipova, T. Milashkina, V. P'yavko, Ye. Obraztsova, Ye. Nesterenko, Yu. Mazurok: " Rostropovich's behaviour gives us reason to come to the conclusion that his social and moral standpoint is in contradiction to our idea of the proper cast of mind for a Soviet man or woman. A person who has long been associated with Solzhenitsyn, a person who is able to exercise a subtle and imperceptible influence on other people, pursuing his own selfish aims and interests, has no moral right to be part of the Bolshoi Theatre collective, even for the shortest period of time." (Copy of a letter in Rostropovich's archive) []
7. In addition, several years ago Rostropovich acquired Mussorgsky's former apartment in St Peteresburg and turned it into the composer's museum. []
8. Rostropovich archive []
9. Reported to the author 24 May 2007 by Ian Jewel, who at that time was a member of the Aldeburgh Youth Orchestra directed by Benjamin Britten. []
10. In fact the curved spike and the correspondingly more horizontal position of the cello helped to achieve not only a greater intensity and fullness of sound, but also greater fluency. "It is much easier for me to change positions in a more horizontal plane", Slava used to say. []
11. It is interesting to note that one of Slava's favourite relaxations was watching a boxing match. As he put it: "By watching boxers in the ring you learn how to calculate your powers and to anticipate the blows which may rain upon you." []
12. In his final years "Don Quixote" was for Rostropovich a symbol of his friendship with Shostakovich. We now know that Shostakovich first conceived his last composition, a viola sonata, as a cello sonata (M. Yakubov discovered a preliminary sketch in the bass clef and gave it to Slava). It was to this work that Shostakovich alluded to several times before he and Rostropovich parted in 1974. "Slava, if you receive an unsigned music manuscript, don't throw it way. Please have a look at it." At the end of the sonata there is a quotation from "Don Quixote", a greeting to Slava. []