On the road with Rostropovich, by Steven Isserlis

Gramophone Mon 27th February 2017

He may be a star cellist, but Steven Isserlis is also a huge Rostropovich fan. So, when he went to San Francisco to play Britten under his hero’s baton in 2007, he kept a journal…

Steven Isserlis

Steven Isserlis

February 9

I am summoned to Rostropovich’s hotel two hours after my arrival from London. He has to fetch me from the lobby, so I wait at the elevator nervously; eventually, the doors part – and out comes Slava, the living legend. He greets me warmly and takes me up to his suite, which somehow feels very Russian. I play right through Britten’s Cello Symphony, and he makes several suggestions, mainly about the rhythm. He points out that I’m rushing in one passage: 'Ben liked more English, you play Zigeuner.' He stresses the importance of rubato within tempo.

Afterwards, he takes me down to a room where there are various desserts laid out; he encourages me to eat, because he thinks that cellists should have healthy appetites. I grill him on all sorts of things: Prokofiev, for instance. I didn’t know that he lived at Prokofiev’s dacha on and off for four years. Slava would write out Prokofiev’s scores from the piano scores, into which Prokofiev would have scribbled the instrumentation. I ask him if he learnt English in order to talk to Britten. 'No, we talk Aldeburgh Deutsch. He speak little German, I speak little German – but we understand each other. Marion Harewood – she real German, from Austria – she say that when she listen to us for 10 minutes, she can’t understand German any longer!' He tells me about Britten’s visit to Russia and Armenia, and how at each town they went to, the local mayor would make a speech of welcome. Rostropovich would translate – or rather, not translate: he’d say things like 'tomorrow morning we meet at 10, go in car, etc' (and probably somewhat racier things, too, I’d imagine), and Britten would have to listen with a straight face, smiling graciously the while. He also talks about Boris Tchaikovsky’s concerto: 'work of genius’.

February 10

Rostropovich is giving a class at the San Francisco Conservatory, and I have been invited along as his personal groupie. On the way, I ask him more about Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, etc. I ask him whether it’s true he started to wear scarves in imitation of Prokofiev. 'No, cravats. I had only two suits, so need to pretend I have more; so I wear different coloured cravat every day.' I tell him that he must write his autobiography: 'Yes, Galina [his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya] tell me she kill me if I don’t.' Arriving at the Conservatory, he is serenaded by an impressive cello choir. I meet my friends the cellist David Finckel and his pianist-wife Wu Han. They tell me that when Slava discovered that Wu Han was learning Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, he wanted to compare fingerings, because it had been his graduation piece from the piano class at the Moscow Conservatory. He played some excerpts for them, 'wonderfully'.

He coaches two student groups. For some reason, an interpreter has been laid on, who does seem a little surplus to requirements. At one point, Slava asks one of the groups to play from letter N. 'Play from letter N,' confirms the interpreter helpfully. Basically, Rostropovich tells the groups to pay more attention to the composer’s markings. He says he tries very hard to keep to the score these days, because he may soon meet all the composers, and he doesn’t want them to be waiting to ask him: 'Slava, why you do this?'

February 11

The day of the first rehearsal. I wait for an hour while Slava works with the orchestra. Then, during the break, he comes to my room. 'Stevechik, you go onstage now, get ready.' I meekly do what I’m told – even though I’m not quite sure why I’m all alone onstage while the orchestra is on their break. Eventually, they come back and we go through the piece, finishing with two minutes to spare; Slava proudly holds up the clock. At the end, I have a few questions for him. 'Yes, beloved?' he responds. I am thrilled – a special mark of affection from the great man! Then the first trombone comes up, also with a question. 'Yes, beloved?' asks Slava. Then a stagehand. 'Yes, beloved?' Oh.

February 12

Morning: dress rehearsal. Slava has arrived early, so I don’t get to drive in with him – he’s probably trying to avoid my constant grilling. If so, I don’t blame him – but I can’t stop; there’s so much to ask! We go onstage and go through the piece again; it does seem rather little rehearsal for such a huge work. At the end, I say that I’m scared; 'Me too,' he says. Gulp.

Evening: Slava is in a good mood when we pick him up for the concert. He gives me wise advice on travelling with a cello: 'If you have long journey with, say, orchestral manager and she pretty, you put cello by the door and sit with her; if not, cello go in the middle.' At the hall, he comes to my room, and points out three passages where I’m not supposed to be heard – 'this Cello Symphony, not concerto' – so I must visually invite the orchestra to join me, to make it clear that it’s a tutti passage. Then when we’re standing in the wings about to go on, he tells me to take the endpin out now, because it’s not good to be seen fumbling with it onstage. We go on, start – and within the first two bars, the pages of my music have been blown over by the air-conditioning. Oh God. Luckily, he notices, and whips the pages back. Not exactly a relaxing beginning, but it mostly goes better than I’d expected; and it’s certainly a powerful experience to play this work with the man who inspired it. The best moments are when Slava smiles, and I can tell he’s enjoying himself. Afterwards, I am rewarded by his trademark three kisses onstage – and by a warmer reaction from the audience than I’d expected; masterpiece though the Symphony is, it’s not an easy listen.

February 13

During today’s ride, I ask him about Gorbachev and Yeltsin; he rarely sees Gorbachev, but keeps in touch with Yeltsin. He says that Yeltsin is looking amazing – has lost 20 kilos, and looks 20 years younger. I ask him whether it’s true that he was in the Kremlin with Yeltsin when he was besieged there by the leaders of an attempted coup. Yes, he affirms: at one particularly dangerous-looking moment Yeltsin called the leader of the rebels, and told him that Rostropovich was in there with him. And at that point the reply came: 'Tell Rostropovich we kill nobody.'

At the hall, he pays me another visit. I have asked about the possibility of him conducting a passage in 3, rather than 6, but he says it’s too late to tell the orchestra now; besides, 'Ben –
he conduct in 6'. Not much I can say to that!

In the concert, I try taking the opening of the last movement at the faster tempo I’m used to; Slava’s steely blue eyes flash at me, and I understand how our family dog must have felt when he wanted to chase a cat and we jerked him back on his lead. Still, Slava is lovely after the concert. I introduce him to some friends of mine from England. 'You friend of my friend? Then you my friends, too. He friend of mine for life now.' I hope that’s true.

February 14

We pick him up, and I ask him how he is. 'Good – I alive. Is always good news.' He tells me that he sleeps exactly four hours a night – how on earth does he do it? He really is a superman. But today he’s understandably upset about something: 'Yesterday I take one bottle of Heineken from mini-bar. I get bill – $56!' 'Surely not,' I remonstrate. 'It must be $5.60.' 'That my dream. No, 56!’

He comes to visit me in my room again – these minutes together are wonderful. He makes me play the opening of the last movement at the speed I’d like; then asks me to play the vivo passage later in the movement, which should be faster. And it can’t be faster than my opening tempo. So he is completely right, and I am completely wrong. Ah well. The concert is more relaxed; I follow his pre-concert directions, and am rewarded with approving smiles, which warm the old cockles.

February 15

On this car journey, he tells me how Prokofiev called him once in great excitement: 'Slava, come over, I have something.' It was a new theme for the second movement of his concerto – and from that came the idea to rewrite the concerto entirely, and transform it into the Sinfonia concertante.

This time I go to his room and ask for more suggestions. He is drinking tea, and gives me lots of chocolates from his hotel. I bring up the Heineken scandal again. He laughs: 'This my mistake. You know how dollar is written – I think this is 5. I show my friend – I say $56. He says no, $6.50.' He tells me not to lift my bow into the air at the end of the Cello Symphony. 'It should be like pulling sword from stone.' He asks for my cello, and plays a few notes; he does make an amazing sound.

February 16

My wife Pauline has arrived today; Slava is introduced to her, and makes his usual noise when he’s pleased to see someone – 'occhhhh' (difficult to describe – it’s part surprise, part mock-chiding, comes from far back in the throat and is deeply Russian). The performance goes well, I think; but although I try, I can’t do the gesture he wants at the end. Frustrating to finish on this note – it’s the only suggestion he’s made that I haven’t been able to incorporate. Damn. Apart from that, though, he does seem pleased. Peter, the first cellist, has invited me to join the cello section for the Tchaikovsky symphony this time, so I do. We’ve asked Slava beforehand, but I’m not sure he’s taken it onboard, because he does a double-take when he sees me playing away. But he smiles, and afterwards I get five kisses instead of the usual three. He is charming about me to Pauline (who puts him straight, of course) and we walk away on clouds. But that, sadly, is it – the end of a great experience.

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£67/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018