Rostropovich: my precious memories of the great cellist and conductor

Michael McManusThu 2nd March 2017

Michael McManus, the author of this month's Rostropovich cover story, recalls his time with the great musician

Music has long played a central role in my life and I have relished encounters with numerous musical personalities. I shall always treasure memories of hearing and meeting the great conductors Klaus Tennstedt and Gunter Wand. There was no love lost between those two, but they had a lot more in common than either would ever have admitted. Two men far removed in every sense from both of them were the towering, all-round musicians and personalities Leonard Bernstein and Mstislav 'Slava' Rostropovich. On the surface at least, Lenny Bernstein and Slava shared an approach both to music and also to life in general. Indeed, the well-worn epithet 'larger than life' could have been coined to describe either, or both, of them. When they played, they somehow combined masterly technique with a seductive, romantic, irresistible power and charm. When they conducted, there was no room on the podium for cool classicism. They urged, dragged, implored even, one extraordinary performance after another out of the orchestras in front of them. Their personalities flooded rooms and halls, hearts and minds. Of the two, I found Slava to be consistently the more effusive, but also much the more elusive, even though I knew him for far longer. In Green Rooms, at parties and in receptions, he would grab, hug and kiss almost anyone who crossed his path, but, as soon as he was out of the limelight, he could instantaneously acquire a much more thoughtful and introspective, sometimes even melancholy, manner and aura.

I first encountered Slava in October 1987, when he celebrated his 60th birthday with an LSO concert series. He had worked closely with the LPO in the 1970s, including in the recording studio, but more recently his role with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington had curtailed his visits to Britain. Now Clive Gillinson, a fellow cellist and currently the enterprising managing director of the LSO, had somehow enticed him back. I went backstage and met him briefly after a gorgeous performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. I still have the signed programme from that night. When I heard him conduct Britten’s War Requiem a few weeks later in the same series, I knew the form and felt sufficiently emboldened to accept one of his legendary hugs in the emotional aftermath. I last saw him 19 years later, when my father and I watched him conduct a substantial programme of music by Shostakovich in the Salle Pleyel in Paris, on two successive November nights. The music-making was of the highest standard and there was, to either ear or eye, nothing obviously valedictory to it. When I went to see Slava after the second concert, however, I was shaken by his gaunt, shrunken appearance and knew at once he was seriously, perhaps mortally, ill. In less than six months, he was dead. I was shocked but not surprised.

In the intervening years, I had come closer to Slava when working as political secretary to Ted Heath, the former Prime Minister. These two very different men genuinely held one another in high esteem. Presenting Slava with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Gramophone Awards, in his citation, Heath recounted how, when he became Prime Minister in June 1970, one of many telegrams he received came from Slava, in Aldeburgh: 'I am very happy that this country which I love so much has a musician as Prime Minister'. When I was preparing the celebrations for Heath’s 80th birthday in July 1996, I was delighted to learn, from Clive Gillinson, that Slava and his wife, the great soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were to be in London and would be delighted to attend Heath’s celebrations, which included a special dinner at No 10 Downing Street, with Her Majesty the Queen as a very special guest. That week I was summoned by Slava to his house in Maida Vale. Upon arrival I was handed the birthday present – a presentation set of Slava’s new (and first) complete recording of the Bach Suites – plus a cassette tape. The tape was to be played at Heath’s birthday gala at the Savoy, announced as a premiere recording of 'Bach’s Seventh Cello Suite'. In fact, Slava had been to Abbey Road, with his cello, and recorded himself playing and singing 'Happy Birthday, Dear Ted'. Predictably, it brought the house down. 

The period when I had the privilege of experiencing Slava in the concert hall was also the time when his cello playing had begun to deteriorate and he turned his time and efforts increasingly to conducting. He never lost his authority as a cellist – especially when playing works that had been written for him – but the rock-solid technique of earlier years had given way to something more hit and miss. As I begin work on the book I am co-writing about the great impresarios Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, Slava’s name comes up again and again. The reviews of his earliest UK appearances are beyond gushing. Those fortunate enough to have been in attendance evidently felt themselves to be in the presence of a historic titan. Many recordings from that period survive and I hope to deal with some of them in a subsequent piece on this website. Slava’s recorded legacy serves only to make me miss him more.

In contrast with his erstwhile virtuosity on the cello, Slava’s conducting had always represented something of a triumph of passion and innate musicianship over deficient technique. Sometimes he seemed to have no baton technique at all, yet, through some alchemical combination of self-belief, natural authority and superhuman exhortation, I witnessed him conjure out of orchestras some of the most exciting performances – and some of the most extreme dynamic contrasts – I have ever encountered. Somehow the technical challenges served only to add to the excitement. There was, of course, a downside too. When musicians asked searching questions or sought clarification, Slava could take it very personally, sensing an implied criticism of his failure to communicate his intentions with sufficient clarity. As his former student Moray Welsh recalled recently, ‘As a conductor, his great gift was for creating atmosphere – colour and drama – but he could be very sensitive to anything he felt was criticism.’

Dutifully undertaking my research for this month’s Gramophone cover story about Slava, I rapidly – and very agreeably – lost myself in old programmes, cuttings and recordings. For almost two decades, this extraordinary man had, in some way, been a significant part of my life. There are so many memories: two Shostakovich series at the Barbican, plus one each for Prokofiev and Schnittke; Slava’s 75th birthday concert, when the principal theme of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto morphed surreptitiously into 'Happy Birthday'; Slava playing joyously with Paul and Maud Tortelier at the Royal Festival Hall, to mark the former’s 75th birthday and for once happy to play 'second fiddle'; and Slava’s very last rehearsal with the LSO, after Clive Gillinson had departed to New York, when a group of schoolchildren reacted with visceral fear to the sheer power and anger of the scherzo from Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10. All that merely scratches the surface. Robert Truman, for many years the distinguished principal cello of the LPO, once described Slava to me as a 'freak of nature'. It was meant as the highest compliment, because even someone as technically accomplished as Bob recognised that Slava was a unique talent – someone to be admired and revered, perhaps, but also someone whom it would be pointless to attempt to imitate. That’s not a bad testament to a unique musician and a gigantic human being.

Michael McManus

Michael McManus is an author, writing on subjects including classical music, theatre and politics. His latest book, 'Tory Pride and Prejudice', a history of the Conservative Party and homosexual law reform, was published by Biteback in October 2011.

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