Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rostropovich obituary

Mstislav Rostropovich

May 10th 2007
From The Economist print edition

“Slava” Rostropovich, the world's greatest cellist, died on April 27th, aged 80


MUSIC, under totalitarianism, was one of the great escapes. The most vicious secret policeman could not wholly curb the human spirit once it moved into the world of sounds. “Slava” Rostropovich (the diminutive of his Christian name means “glory” in Russian) used to the utmost the freedom that music gave him inside the Soviet Union. When forced to move abroad, he became the ambassador of free Russian culture to the world, doing in music what Alexander Solzhenitsyn did, more gloomily, in words.

He was present at the two defining moments of the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 (when he played Bach suites all night by a breach between the concrete blocks), and the attempted hardline putsch in Moscow in August 1991. On that occasion he talked his way into the Soviet Union without a visa to stand, rifle gingerly in hand, with Boris Yeltsin in the besieged Russian parliament. Its defenders claimed his presence stopped the putschists storming the building. He would have been happy to die there, he said, on the “most important, dangerous and emotional day of my life”.

In the 17 years before that, apart from one visit with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, DC, he had not set foot in his own country. His defiance began when his two greatest teachers, Sergei Prokofiev and, chiefly, Dmitri Shostakovich, fell out of official favour. A cannier Soviet citizen might have dumped or denounced them, but Mr Rostropovich refused to do so. For a time, his glittering musical talents protected him. Other artists and intellectuals, however, were silent in his defence, and his friendship with Mr Solzhenitsyn was the last straw. In 1969 the writer, persecuted by the authorities, had nowhere to live; Mr Rostropovich invited him to stay. Then he, his wife Galina and some other brave souls wrote an open letter to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, protesting at the regime's abuse of cultural freedom.

After that, Mr Rostropovich was on the blacklist. He became a prisoner in his own country, ignored by the state-controlled media, unable to play in public or make recordings. He was stripped of his musical awards, and his name was even removed from the many scores that had been dedicated to him. Though Russia was “in my heart—in my mind”, and ever would be, in 1974 he asked to be allowed to leave. His citizenship was revoked four years later.

He had been adored in the West since his first visit in 1956, frequently performing at the Aldeburgh festival and becoming close friends with its towering talent, Benjamin Britten. The two communicated in broken German, which they called “Aldeburgh Deutsch”; Britten wrote cello suites, a sonata and a symphony for him. In exile Mr Rostropovich learnt English, or at least developed an idiosyncratic version of it. But he lost none of his Russianness, greeting friends with a massive bear hug. After Britten died, Mr Rostropovich would hug his tomb when visiting Aldeburgh.

Off-duty, he was an assiduous socialite. In London, Washington or Paris he was glad to mix with the appreciative, anything in stockings and (especially, jealous critics said) the famous. But his main energies went to music. He would rise at five, study scores for three hours, relax after a concert with a four-hour practice session. Such discipline had been inculcated from childhood, when he had studied the cello with his father at their home in Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan. At 13, he would hang flatbread from the ceiling-lamp so that he could snatch swaying mouthfuls as he played. And when, as a young man, he thought he might be allowed to premiere Shostakovich's first cello concerto, he practised for ten hours a day.

He played the piano too—his first instrument, on which he had been coached by his mother from the age of four—and was accomplished enough to accompany his wife, a soprano, in her recitals. He conducted, though his sessions had a mixed press: sometimes clumsy and lacking in fireworks, sometimes inspirational, with an unmatched ability to communicate his profound understanding of the music to the orchestra. When contemporary composers played through their pieces for him, he said, he would watch their faces, and try to pass their feelings on.

As a performer, he combined extraordinary technical virtuosity with a sublimely confident and passionate interpretation of the music's melodic line. His sound was as huge as his humanity. When his interpretations departed a bit from the printed score, few complained: the music was enriched, not merely transmitted, through his playing. He had fallen in love with the cello in the first place, he explained, because it seemed to be his own voice. But the music he heard in his head as he played was “symphonic”, far surpassing even the sound of the instrument he embraced.

Perhaps his most memorable performance was of Dvorak's cello concerto, in London in September 1968, just after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring. Protesters outside the Royal Albert Hall were cross that a “Soviet” concert was going ahead. But Mr Rostropovich wept for his country's crimes and its captives' suffering, and so did those who heard him.

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