Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007)

"Slava" has died. The great Russian cellist, known as much for his defiance of the Soviet oligarchy as for the more than 170 compositions dedicated to him, had been hospitalized in Paris at the end of January, but chose to fly to Moscow shortly thereafter to spend his last months in his beloved homeland. He is survived, not only by his two daughters and his wife and frequent collaborator, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, but also by the huge number of recordings that attest to his eloquence.

Of the over 240 world premieres Rostropovich played, Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto (Cello Concerto No.2), Shostakovich's First and Second Cello Concertos, and Britten's Cello Sonata, Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, and three Cello Suites stand out for their musical as well as historic significance. Add to the list major works by Schnittke, Kabalevsky, Khatchaturian, Pärt, Piston, Auric, Bliss, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Berio, Bernstein, Penderecki, Walton, Messiaen, Panufnik, Shchedrin, MacMillian, Read Thomas, Foss, and Kancheli, and one begins to appreciate the pivotal role Rostropovich played in the development of classical music in the latter half of the 20th century.

Thankfully, much of Slava's legacy has been preserved on disc and film. Stunning recordings exist of most of his major triumphs, including the cello concertos of Shostakovich (available in multiple versions, including a performance of the First on Sony that features the forces with whom Slava premiered the work in the US, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy). Even when recordings suffer from inferior sound, eg many of the early Russian recordings and those set down in the early digital era, Rostropovich's sheer beauty of tone, breathtaking emotional commitment, and numerous interpretive risks triumph over technical considerations.

Take, for example, the 1983 Deutsche Grammophon digital recording of the two Brahms Cello Sonatas with Rudolf Serkin (DG). Even though the microphone greatly shortchanges Serkin, whose reticent piano lacks fullness, Rostropovich's cello emerges with stunning richness and warmth of tone. It is impossible to listen to the first phrases of Brahms' First Cello Sonata without one's heart opening to Slava's ability to fully convey the depth of Brahms' emotions. Dynamics may be greater in a 1960 recording included in Brilliant Classic's 10-box set that features Rostropovich accompanied by Alexander Dedukhin, but the DG recording captures two musical giants at their most profound.

Equally indispensable are such documents as Rostropovich conducting his wife in the opera that so upset Stalin, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (EMI); partnerships with another Russian giant, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, in the Beethoven Cello Sonatas (EMI DVD and/or Philips CD two-fer); and the famed pairing of Beethoven's Triple Concerto under Karajan with David Oistrakh and Richter with the Brahms Double Concerto with Oistrakh under Szell (EMI). A number of live recordings from the 1960s pairing Rostropovich with the London Symphony, BBC Symphony, and USSR State Symphony Orchestras (BBC); Britten's Cello Suites (Decca and EMI) and Cello Symphony conducted by Britten (EMI); and various versions of Shostakovich's symphonies conducted by Rostropovich (LSO Live and other labels) are also mandatory listening. I would also not want to be without the 1991 recordings of the six Bach unaccompanied cello suites (EMI), which offer illuminating comparisons with recordings by Casals, Starker, et al.

The musical magnificence reflected the man's boundless humanity. Rostropovich studied composition under Shostakovich and Prokofiev in the early 1940s, and continued to do so even when Soviet authorities condemned both composers for "formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies." Myaskovsky and Mieczyslaw Weinberg were other composers Rostropovich stood by in times of persecution. When the authorities attacked writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the late 1960s, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya invited him to stay as their guest in their dacha outside Moscow for four years. Rostropovich even took the manuscript of the writer's August 1914 to the Ministry of Culture, arguing there was nothing in it to fear.

Finally, in 1970, Rostropovich came under fire when he sent an open letter to Pravda. Though the letter remained unpublished in Russia, it appeared in Western newspapers. In words that reflect the current situation in the United States, where artists from the Middle East, Cuba, and other countries are frequently banned from entry by dolts in the INS who have never heard their music, Rostropovich wrote, "Explain to me, please, why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word." For several years thereafter, both the cellist and his soprano wife found themselves mostly restricted from traveling abroad.

With his Soviet citizenship revoked, he traveled abroad on Swiss documents. "I will not utter one single lie in order to return," he said in 1977, "and once there if I see new injustice, I will speak our four times more loudly than before." He only returned after Gorbachev's liberalization led to a restoration of his citizenship in 1990. Subsequently, Rostropovich was instrumental in defending the regime of Boris Yeltsin against hard-core communists.

Another composer with whom Slava developed a close personal and musical affiliation was England's Benjamin Britten, who endured more than his fair share of persecution for his staunch pacifism and well-publicized relationship with his tenor partner, Peter Pears. For several years, Rostropovich even directed Britten's summer festival at Aldeburgh. The recordings the two made together are definitive.

Nancy Shear, an artist representative who currently represents such first-tier artists as Richard Stoltzman, Marvin Hamlisch, Vadim Gluzman, Lera Auerbach, and Byron Janis, was close friends with the cellist for over 40 years. Reached by phone as she was dashing through the streets of New York, Shear reflected on the depth of Rostropovich's humanity.

Shear first met Rostropovich in 1967, when he was just beginning to gain a foothold in the United States. As an assistant in the library of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as a cello student, she ended up charged with carrying a huge, heavy folder filled with the orchestration of Dvorák's Cello Concerto to Rostropovich's rehearsal.

"This totally charming guy, youthful and adorable like a puppy dog, ran over and grabbed the music out of my hands. I thought it must have been his assistant. Imagine my surprise when he took me by the hand, sat me on the floor a few yards away from his cello, and let me listen to him rehearse. I was so close that I could feel the vibrations in my chest.

"After the rehearsal, when we ended up in the lobby at the same time, he grabbed my hand and pushed me into the car, with the case holding his Stradivarius cello over both our laps. When I asked when he'd be back in Philadelphia, he promised he'd play me one of the Bach Suites. A month later, he did, right after carrying his manager's luggage into the hotel. He was so devoted to serving other people. It was he who pushed me into artist management when he told me how many people I could help.

"The man was all communication. His music making was magnificently extroverted. There was always this wonderful sense of danger that he would lose control, which he never did, but which contributed to the excitement of his playing. I remember us walking the streets of Philadelphia trailed by his awful pianist Dedukhin, who was KGB. He followed him around everywhere. Slava would make comments about the lack of freedom in Russia, smile, and say 'I make joke, I make joke.' We all know now that it wasn't a joke.

"The last time I saw him, on his final trip to New York, he did not look well. 'I still alive' was his reply. That really scared the hell out of me. He went through so many battles. There's a limit to how many you can endure. His only consolation was that he loved Russia dearly. I think he loved Russia as much as he loved music."