On Rostropovich: Cellists Remember a MasterHe was a conductor, an activist, and a public figure in the world of classical music. But before all that, Mstislav Rostropovich captivated the world with his cello. Sara Fishko talks to leading cellists about "Slava" and his legacy.
Sonata for arpeggione & piano in A minor ("Arpeggione Sonata"), D. 821
Variations on a Rococo Theme, for cello & orchestra (or cello & piano) in A major, Op. 33
Elfentanz for cello & piano, Op 39 "Dance of the Elves"
Playlist of music heard in this segment:
Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme with the USSR Symphony Orchestra
Faure's Apres un reve, Op. 7/1 with Alexander Dedyuhkin
Britten's Suite for solo cello No. 1, Op. 72
Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Saint-Saens's Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33
Shostakovich's Concerto for Cello in E flat, Op. 107 with the Philadelphia Orchestra
Schubert's Sonata for arpeggione and piano, D821 with Benjamin Britten
Honegger's Cello Concerto  with the USSR Symphony Orchestra
Courtesy of WNYC
Mstislav Rostropovich became the musical director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1977, but he continued to perform.
Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Mstislav Rostropovich was many things: a commanding conductor, a political dissident, a public figure in the world of classical music. But before all that, he played the cello.
One year after his death at 80, there remains a generation of cellists — really, several generations — who remember the experience of hearing Rostropovich perform on stage.
Matt Haimovitz is the cellist known for performing J.S. Bach's cello suites in nightclubs and restaurants. "The sound that Slava produced could cut through anything," he says. "Just seeing this man projecting to the last corners of the hall with his sheer sound and will."
Fred Sherry is a professor of cello at the Juilliard School. "I think people in the audience were bowled over by not only his playing, but his endurance and the life in his playing," Sherry says. "This guy came out and he was an animal on the stage. You could say he's the Marlon Brando of the cello."
David Soyer was the founding cellist of the Guarnieri Quartet, and remembers Rostropovich's first Carnegie Hall concerts. "Completely unknown guy, appeared from Russia and played wonderfully," he says.
Only in her mid-20s, Alisa Weilerstein has already performed with many of the nation's top orchestras. "He was so, so moving and so natural," she says. "I'm not the type that cries at concerts, but I lost it completely."
It was that rich sound that got them. The remarkable Rostropovich tone "opened" the instrument in a way — nobody had played quite like it.
David Finckel, best known for his work with the Emerson Quartet, once studied cello with Rostropovich. "Rostropovich always liked to say in master classes, 'Cellists' number one problem is sound,'" Finckel says. "Violins can always be heard — it's much easier to hear higher sounds. And as soon as you get lower, you have the challenge of dealing with whatever accompaniment may be there, not to mention ambient noise."
For Rostropovich, this was the whole point of playing the cello: To defy its limitations, to exhaust its possibilities.
"I was 7 years old, but the impact of the sound that he was creating — I was fascinated by it," Matt Haimovitz says. "I couldn't understand how so much sound was coming out of one instrument."
Maya Beiser is an acclaimed performer of contemporary classical and new music who helped found the Bang on a Can All-Stars. "You know, his cello is almost horizontal," she says. "He had this kind of way that he was just completely kind of on top of the instrument. Totally owning it, you know?"
For cellists and aspiring cellists, Rostropovich was a powerhouse in the concert hall. But they all listened to him on record, as well.
There was his recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. And the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto. ("It was just as though I had seen the light," David Finkel says.) Not to mention Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, written specifically for his friend Slava.
What is interesting, and telling, is that even with Rostropovich's great recordings as a soloist, all the cellists mentioned a particular, unlikely, and very fruitful collaboration. The Russian teamed with the great 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten to produce a definitive take on Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, adapted for cello and piano.
Beyond the Bow
But the cellists say there was something else in Rostropovich's playing — something behind his bow that actually altered his tone.
Cellist James Krieger: "For me it was the commitment — all the time, actually, not just playing the cello."
David Finckel: "There was something about the musicality of his presence that just made everybody feel more musical, more connected to the music, and more able to come to his label somehow."
Matt Haimovitz: "There was a sincerity. There was a connection that he was making with his music. He could make anybody sing — no matter how difficult, he could overcome all this, and make it seem as natural as the human voice."
Some players are defined by their art. The great violinist Jascha Heifetz comes to mind as one who was a violinist: first, last, and always.
For Rostropovich, it was different. His art was defined by him — by all of the things he was apart from the cello. He poured it all in there. And what came out stunned and impressed cellists of every stripe — not to mention the rest of us.
A guide to some of Rostropovich’s essential recordings
Bach: Cello Suite No. 1—‘Prelude’ (Recorded in 1991. EMI 55363)
Dvorak: Cello Concerto—“Finale” (Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert Von Karajan, conductor. Recorded in 1969. Deutsche Grammophon 447 413)
Written for Rostropovich Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1—‘Allegretto’ (Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, conductor. Recorded in 1959. Sony Classical 63327)
Written for Rostropovich Britten: Cello Suite No. 1—‘Serenata’ (Recorded in 1968. London/Decca 421 859)
Rostropovich as Conductor Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5—‘Allegretto’ (Recorded in 1983. Deutsche Grammophon 410 509)
A Slava Salute
20 years ago Weekend Edition Saturday produced this profile of Rostropovich at age 60.
Rostropovich in conversation
Mstislav Rostropovich in 2004.
Cristina Quickler/AFP/Getty Images
Cristina Quickler/AFP/Getty Images
Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who courageously fought for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents and later triumphantly played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall, died Friday. He was 80.
A spokeswoman for the master cellist did not immediately provide other details surrounding his death.
Rostropovich died in a Moscow cancer hospital, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. He is reported to have suffered from intestinal cancer.
He served as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. for nearly 20 years during his exile to the U.S.
President Vladimir Putin visited the ailing musician in the hospital earlier this year — an indication of both the respect Rostropovich has earned as a cultural figure and how much the political landscape has changed since he was exiled from the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Rostropovich leaves a legacy that is artistic and political. As a cello soloist he was a friend and muse to many of the most important composers of the 20th Century.
The longevity and path of his career can be seen in some of the many honors Rostropovich was awarded, including the Lenin Prize, the Stalin Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He was born in Baku, in the Soviet Union (now Azerbaijan) on March 27, 1927.
In an interview with National Public Radio in 1987, Rostropovich recalled a conversation with his mother, describing, in his heavy accent, his hands as a beautiful gift.
"My mother carried me for 10 months. I tell her, 'Mother you have extra month, why you not make for me beautiful face?' And mother tell me, 'My son, I was busy with make you beautiful hands," he said.
Both of his parents were accomplished musicians. His father was a cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist and conductor.
In 1943, young Rostropovich entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer wrote two cello concertos for Rostropovich.
Rostropovich had a thriving career as a soloist in the 1950s and 1960s, including performances and recordings outside of the Soviet Union.
Cellist Lynn Harrell says the first time he saw Rostropovich perform, his passion and ferocity were reminiscent of a forest fire.
"He was a gigantic virtuoso, but one who threw caution to the winds to such an extent that the cause of drama and the intensity of the music itself were uppermost," Harrell said.
Rostropovich also took chances politically, in the controlling atmosphere of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, which ended up getting him into trouble.
In the early 1970s, he not only provided housing for the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn for four years but also wrote a letter that circulated in the West protesting Soviet treatment of the author. As a result, his concert appearances were drastically cut, and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, lost her job at the Bolshoi Opera.
In 1974, they were granted exit visas, and while out the country were stripped of their citizenship.
Rostropovich adopted the United States as his home in exile. He served as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in Washington, D.C., from 1977 to 1994.
And in a dramatic reversal, in 1990 President Mikhail Gorbachev reinstated the couple's citizenship, and Rostropovich triumphantly returned to his homeland on tour with the NSO, where he was greeted enthusiastically at the Moscow Conservatory.
Rostropovich told NPR the visit reminded him of when the Berlin Wall had come down.
"I have feeling that my heart now is together — two half of heart now together," he said.