Rostropovich, and his towering musical legacy

Martin CullingfordFri 24th February 2017

Few soloists have changed their instrument's repertoire quite so definitively

There were two occasions when I was fortunate enough to interview Mstislav Rostropovich, only one of which was in person. But both times I encountered a figure who, to employ a cliché, really was larger than life. It was as if he was bursting to communicate, to tell a story. In person, as in performer. The first time was to coincide with the release by BBC Legends of his now – and again, another cliché doesn’t seem hyperbolic – legendary performance of the Dvorák Concerto from the 1968 Proms, a Czech work performed by Russian artists on the day the Soviet regime suppressed the Prague Spring. There are few more powerful examples of where music can make a statement more eloquently than words will allow.

The second time was about Beethoven, not politics, to discuss the release of the Violin Concerto, him conducting, Maxim Vengerov the soloist. ‘He’s like a grandfather to me’ said Vengerov, a quiet, respectful presence in the room. Rostropovich was having none of it. ‘Not father, not grandfather, just brother!’ he said, as he held court with a level of enthusiasm and energy that wouldn’t have shamed someone half his age. 

We decided to focus, for the cover feature of the latest edition of Gramophone, on Rostropovich’s legacy in terms of repertoire. Many great musicians throughout history have, through their interpretations, influenced the way other artists approach certain repertoire. Few, however, have actually changed that repertoire quite so definitively. Partly, of course, this was because, prior to Rostropovich, the cello repertoire simply lacked the sheer number of masterpieces of, say, those of the piano, violin or voice. We could place the pioneers of the guitar repertoire – Julian Bream, John Williams and others – in the same category, for the same reason. 

But it wasn’t just down to a dogged determination in pursuit of pieces. Rostropovich’s personality played a key role – that energy, that ability to inspire composers of the likes of Britten, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, that willingness to be a public figure. This latter point occurred to me when attending a recent press conference to launch Sir Simon Rattle’s opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra. Most orchestras hold season launches, but they’re generally attended by the music press. Because of Rattle, this one felt like a mainstream news conference. Few figures attain that status – Rostropovich did. 

But back to Rostropovich and his greatest gift, which was, of course, his playing. He was, in short, a brilliant musician. Most readers will own many a Rostropovich recording, and for those who don’t – or indeed do – two new box-sets from labels with which he had strong links, Warner Classics (Teldec and EMI as then was) and Universal Classics (covering Philips, DG and Decca) offer an excellent way to explore his art. But perhaps, in the spirit of our feature, the best way to pay tribute to this towering figure is to listen not only to him, but to the likes of Steven Isserlis, Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt and all those many stars of the cello who came after him, who take works that only exist because of Rostropovich, and make them speak afresh to a new generation. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Find out more about the March 2017 issue of Gramophone

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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