Rostropovich – reaching out for the music

There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it – Sufi scholar.

Some of us are told of music, some of us can see music, but Mstislav Rostropovich, who died today age 80, reached out and was burnt by it. I first met him after he conducted a wildly exuberant performance of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony with the Snape Maltings Training Orchestra in 1977. Rostropovich had a long-standing relationship with the Aldeburgh Festival, and with its founder Benjamin Britten, who had died the previous year. This relationship had produced the Cello Symphony, the Cello Suites, and a Cello Sonata, all of which Britten wrote for the Russian cellist.

Back in the 1970s I was working for EMI, and Slava’s relationship with the company went back to 1956 when he recorded the Miaskovsky Cello Concerto. In 1974 Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, left the Soviet Union, and the following year he recorded the two Haydn Cello Concertos, with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, in the Henry Wood Hall in London for EMI.

At that time EMI’s famous International Classical Division, which had been founded by Walter Legge, was housed in modest offices in Hanover Square, just off London's Oxford Street, I was EMI’s international marketing manager working for the division’s director, Peter Andry, who had masterminded several legendary ‘east meets west’ recordings, including Karajan’s Dresden Meistersinger and the Berlin Beethoven Triple Concerto with Richter, Oistrak and Rostropovich.

For me, an incident away from the recording studio showed the difference between Rostropovich and other superstar musicians. We decided to celebrate the release of the Haydn record by inviting Slava to the EMI offices in 1977 to present him with the lavish EMI-Pathé gatefold edition of the concertos. The visit summed up Slava’s approach to life - energy, enthusiasm, passion, but above all a love for music and a love for the human race. He made sure he spent time talking to all the background staff who rarely came into contact with the artists, yet alone superstars. We were working with many other great musicians at the time, but the prospect of Herbert von Karajan visiting our offices, yet alone hugging a secretary was unthinkable.

Others will document Rostropovich’s career and achievements in more detail, and in particular his work defending human and artistic freedoms. We are fortunate that he leaves such a fine recorded legacy as a cellist. He went on to achieve much as a conductor, but the electricity he radiated from the podium was difficult to transfer to recordings. I can remember discussions at EMI as to whether his 1970s Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle should be remastered, as the pressings somehow lacked the frisson of the actual performances.

In the later years his energy was occasionally misplaced, and his fee as a conductor became an obstacles with some promoters, restricting his appearances at important series such as the BBC Promenade Concerts. The last time I saw him was in London several years ago with the Lithuanian Ballet, when he conducted a staged performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet that ended with a bizarre mis en scene with Rostropovich joining the dead lovers on stage in the final bars.

Mstislav Rostropovich will be remembered as a genius with the cello and baton, as a champion of human rights, as a consummate ambassador for music, and above all for his love for humanity. He truly reached out and was burnt by the music, let us celebrate that today.

Slava's Russian roots informed everything he did, now read about Western takes on Russian music.
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Pliable said…
Nice tribute by Martin Kettle on the Guardian website, with a second line link to On An Overgrown Path
Valerie said…
Thanks so much for sharing your memories of Slava. He was truly a great inspiration as both an amazing cellist and a courageous human being.

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