The apartment block where Mstislav Rostropovich has his Paris pied-à-terre projects an air of slightly faded grandeur, like most of the buildings in Avenue Georges Mandel. But inside, Rostropovich himself is still magnificent, filling his pinstripe suit less opulently than of yore – he is 80 this month, after all – but with his bubbling energy uncapped and the distinctively chiselled face as mobile as ever. The beautiful hands with their long fingers remain infinitely expressive. Recalling how effortlessly he accompanied his wife Galina Vishnevskaya in Rachmaninov songs – recently reissued by DG – I ask him the width of his hand-spread on the piano. ‘I won a competition with Richter,’ he says proudly, leaping over to the Bösendorfer grand and demonstrating a left-hand chord. ‘You know how big Richter’s hands were, but Richter could only play it on the black notes – I can play it on the white notes.’ The walls of the living room where we talk are covered with impressive oil portraits, including an unfinished one by Serov of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. ‘All Russians,’ says the Maestro with an expansive gesture, indicating that he is in a home from home. As I produce my notebook, explaining that I am an old-fashioned journalist, he counters with: ‘And I am an old-fashioned musician.’
We begin at the beginning, or even before it, as the reams written on Rostropovich pay full regard to his cellist father Leopold but barely mention his mother Sofia. It is a jarring shock to discover that the glorious career of six decades (so far), the more than 240 world premieres (by his own count), the sumptuous performances without number, might never have happened. ‘My mother was very beautiful, from Orenburg, an ancient Russian town – Pushkin lived there for a time. It was a very simple family. They adored music and the father conducted the choir in a church. They had four daughters, Vera, Nadezhda, Sofia and Nina, and a son who died. Three of the daughters went to the Moscow Conservatoire and graduated as pianists. When musicians came to Orenburg, they knew that there were these three sisters who played the piano. The famous cellist Semyon Kozolupov, who was born in Orenburg, went there to start a concert tour. He took Nadezhda as an accompanist, travelling all over Russia, and she became his wife and gave him three daughters, all musicians – one was the violinist Maria Kozolupova. My father came to Orenburg and he took the next daughter, Sofia, as an accompanist. My father made a programme with Sofia and invited her on tour and she became his wife. In 1925 they were teaching at Seratov, another town on the Volga, and my sister Veronika was born. In 1926 they changed to Baku and my mother understood too late that she was pregnant – she cried all over the house. My parents decided she would have to be aborted because she already had a little child. It was a joint decision. So my mother started to fight against me but as you see, I won this war.’
Little Mstislav was unusual even then, born after 10 months’ gestation rather than nine. In every other way he was ahead of himself, perhaps making up for lost time in the womb and that initial rejection. A family photo shows him sleeping in his father’s cello case, but it was the piano he taught himself to play. ‘I started at four, by myself. I was listening to music all the time because my parents were rehearsing all the time.’ His first composition was a polka. ‘My father wrote it down, in C major. It was horrible. When I was five or six my parents moved again, to Moscow. They wanted to take care of me and teach me music in a special way, because I had started showing my talents very early. I was fond of music and attended concerts, and my father started teaching me the cello seriously when I was eight. But before that, for three years, he was working in orchestras in the summer. In the winter my parents would teach, but in the summer my father went to southern cities to play in parks, on an open stage like a shell, playing very serious music. For me those three years were the most important. My father would take me to rehearsals and so I would sit in the orchestra. They were incredibly important, those two months each summer. In concerts my godmother, who was a teacher of German, sat with me. In thePathétique Symphony of Tchaikovsky, in the finale, I cried. I was maybe seven. My godmother opened her handbag and gave me a chocolate but I started crying even more so that she would give me more chocolate.’
Leopold Rostropovich, a renowned teacher, laid the foundation of his son’s exceptional technique. ‘When I was eight he said: “Now is the time to teach you cello.” I said: “Actually I would like to become a conductor.” But he said first I must learn the cello.’ By 1940 ‘Slava’ was playing the Saint-Saëns A minor Concerto with orchestra. Evacuated to Orenburg in the early years of the war, he got to know many singers and musicians and the composer Mikhail Chulaki. ‘He taught me composition – he was very bad after 1948 but he was very good in 1941 and 1942,’ says Rostropovich wryly, alluding to the notorious Zhdanov denunciations of prominent composers. In 1942 came Leopold’s untimely death and Slava was forced to play here, there and everywhere to support the family. In 1943 he entered the Moscow Conservatoire to study cello with his uncle Kozolupov, piano with Kuvshinnikov and composition with Shebalin. Two years younger than the norm, he nearly torpedoed his student career. ‘I loved a girl and I forgot to go to pass my exams – I was so successful that I thought I did not need to pass my exams.’ Aunt Nadezhda (his teacher’s wife and therefore in the know) had a word with Sofia Rostropovich. ‘I saw the tears of my mother and I was so ashamed – in the autumn I passed all my exams.’ His passage through the Conservatoire was accelerated but he longed to be in Shostakovich’s composition class. ‘When I entered the Conservatory in 1943, Shostakovich was on Olympus. It was just after his Seventh Symphony dedicated to Leningrad and his class was full.’ Not wanting to betray his beloved professor Shebalin, Rostropovich asked uncle Kozolupov to intervene and was invited to play his 20-minute piano concerto to Shostakovich. ‘I was so nervous, I never played so fast as in this moment. In 11 or 12 minutes I finished my concerto.’ The solution was that he joined the great man’s orchestration class every Thursday, persuading his uncle to let him have his cello lesson, which clashed with it, at 9am instead of 10. Then from 10 to 3 he worked like a slave. ‘I played four-hands Mahler, I made so many orchestrations of Chopin, Schumann, mostly Romantics. It was a phenomenal time in my life.’ Later he would conduct Shostakovich’s masterly orchestrations of Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina and would have an orchestration of the Songs and Dances of Death made specially for him and Vishnevskaya (their EMI recording has been reissued in a three-disc set of ‘Songs and Arias’ for the soprano’s 80th birthday). When I mention that I also like their recording of the songs with piano for Philips, he says: ‘After Shostakovich heard us perform them with piano, he made the orchestration.’
He graduated in just three years, aged 19, but took a PhD in cello and stayed close to Shostakovich. Meanwhile he won the national competition in 1945 and was on his way as a cellist, but another idol was still remote. ‘Even when I was a student, I was sick with Prokofiev. When I came to the Conservatoire, one of my friends was Anatoly Vedernikov. He played the First Piano Concerto of Prokofiev and I was so amazed that when I came out, I walked straight into a pillar.’ He mimes the literal impact Prokofiev had on him. His professors, knowing his infatuation, tried to introduce him to Prokofiev, usually when they were both collecting their coats after a concert. ‘It happened seven or eight times and each time he forgot me completely.’ He even sought out Prokofiev’s unsuccessful First Cello Concerto and played it with piano in the composer’s presence. ‘Prokofiev came backstage. I was so nervous. He said: “You know, I think this concerto has very good material, but I am not satisfied with the form. If you accept to help me, I would like to make another version.’ I was coming to the seventh heaven.” But the longed-for call was never made.
Then came 1948 and the hell that descended on Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky and others. One day Rostropovich arrived for Shostakovich’s class. ‘My colleagues were staying on the first floor, not the fourth floor. There was a sign, saying Shostakovich would not be a professor any more. He had to suffer a lot in his life.’ Rostropovich remembers Shostakovich sitting alone in the great hall, while fellow professors stepped forward to denounce him. ‘Actually I never said one word against these composers. Some of my concerts were cancelled but I was already appearing abroad by 1949.’ Knowing how faithful he was, Myaskovsky composed a sonata for him and brought his friend Prokofiev to the first performance. ‘Prokofiev came backstage and said: “I would like to compose you a cello sonata”. That was the beginning of my meeting with Prokofiev.’ Rostropovich spent every summer at his dacha, listening with him to records of his music and working on the compositions they produced together, in particular the great Sinfonia concertante fashioned from the concerto’s material. ‘Myaskovsky also lived there but he died in 1951. Prokofiev died in 1953, same day as Stalin.’
The superb Polish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg was also championed by Rostropovich. ‘Weinberg composed for me a sonata and a concerto dedicated to me. He went to prison. His wife was the daughter of the famous Yiddish actor Michoels. When he was in prison, she would not even greet people in the street so as not to make difficulty for them. I did not accept this and I jumped up and kissed her.’ The rest of the story is well known: marriage in 1955 to Galina Vishnevskaya after a whirlwind courtship in Prague, mastering the song repertoire for their joint recitals – ‘I knew the music but I had never played the piano in it’ – the triumphs as a cellist and as an opera and symphonic conductor, the myriad commissions and dedications, the friendship with his other idol, Britten, the championing of the beleaguered Solzhenitsyn which led to exile, removal of Soviet citizenship and the status of an ‘unperson’ in his native land, the eventual return to Russia in 1990, the extraordinary trip to help shore up Boris Yeltsin in 1991, the work since then on behalf of Russian children, for whom the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation has raised millions, providing all manner of health care.
Those of us present at the Proms in the Albert Hall, on the day in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, will never forget how Rostropovich played – of all things – the Dvořák Concerto with Evgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State SO. ‘That concert is never coming out of my head. I remember each part of each second of this concert. Prague is one of the favourite cities in my life. I was just crushed. All day people came and said I should not play this concert, it is impossible, But I say to Galina, “I must go and I must play”. I hope that maybe the public will understand what I feel. Galina was nervous. There were maybe 10,000 people around, with placards and screaming. When I come to the stage I sit, and people are shouting: “Go home, go to the doghouse!” Of course I was crying because through this music I saw people being killed.’ After the concerto he played the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Suite, tears still coursing down his cheeks. ‘It was very curious because the public seemed to understand. When I came away, I was carrying my cello, the crowd was still there, but there was complete silence. I will never forget.’ The performance of the Dvořák is now on CD (7/03), controversially with the opening bars doctored to erase the shouts from the audience.
At the mention of Václav Talich, with whom he first recorded the Dvořák, his face lights up. ‘He was my teacher for Dvořák.’ Talich, having his own problems with authority, was confined to Bratislava, but when Rostropovich won the Prague Spring competition in 1950 Supraphon persuaded Klement Gottwald to allow a recording. After Rostropovich had played the concerto to Talich with piano at the Rudolfinum, the conductor suggested that perhaps Dvořák would have liked a certain passage played, not in tempo, but with a slight accelerando. ‘I said to him: “Maestro, teach me!” I told the same to Dutilleux about his concerto.’ Rostropovich also recalls Sir Adrian Boult, with whom he made a great Dvořák recording, with affection. ‘I had communication with each conductor. I did not play like a stupid idiot, I tried to make a connection. I made a connection with Sir Adrian.’
He seldom played the Elgar Concerto, although the 1965 live recording that BBC Legends has just issued (2/07) is very fine. ‘I like this music enormously, but one year Jacqueline du Pré was my student and she was so inspired in this music. I am not enough sincere in this music. I like Great Britain so much,’ he emphasises, giving a very funny mime of an elderly English couple he saw sniffing some roses and expressing their appreciation in their own restrained fashion. Of the two Haydn concertos, he rarely played the D major, so his superb video of both with the ASMF, just reissued on DVD, is doubly valuable. In the C major he plays Britten’s interesting cadenzas. ‘I first played the C major Haydn. I had a concert in London for some society and they wanted this concerto. I said to Ben: “Please compose me a cadenza, because I don’t like Haydn’s.” And in the morning he brought it to me.’ Their friendship produced much music, not least the Cello Symphony, which they recorded. Why did Rostropovich never record the Third Solo Suite? ‘I never had time. It was one of the greatest mistakes in my life. It has such a special ending.’ Perhaps somewhere there is a radio tape of him playing it.
And let us hope the 80th birthday will flush out some of the Rostropovich mono classics which have been overlooked by the critical cliques: the astonishing 1963 Schubert C major Quintet with the Taneyev Quartet – ‘A great quartet,’ he affirms – which has the exposition repeat and such a sublimely slow Adagio that on the original LP that movement had to be split between sides; the definitive trios with Gilels and Kogan, especially Beethoven’s Archduke; and perhaps a few of the early short pieces. Rostropovich no longer recalls the where, what and when of his first record, which was certainly made at 78rpm, on wax. He has a vivid memory of one 78rpm session, however. ‘The Moto perpetuo of Paganini has the devil’s difficulties on cello. I played it five times, beginning to end. One time I played phenomenally and I was so happy – then I missed the last note.’ He mimes the moment of disaster, repeating wistfully: ‘I played fantastically…’
Rostropovich Misses Last Note. It would have been worth a headline. One can safely say that he has not missed many since then.