When music was like medicine

Mstislav Rostropovich looks back on Soviet musical life, and the ghosts who linger.

The New York Times, April 16, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO – THE history of 20th-century classical music comes in many packages, and one of them was sitting across the table here a few weeks ago, a compact bundle of epic stories and enthusiasm. “I’m the happiest man in the world,” Mstislav Rostropovich declared in a thick Russian accent. And you almost believed him.

At the height of his powers, after all, Mr. Rostropovich, now 79, was a titan of the cello, one of the great players of his time. When he began touring in the West in the late 1950’s, he astonished audiences with the strength and focus of his tone, the versatility of his sound and the sheer volcanic energy he brought to the stage. In the 1970’s, his sheltering and defense of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn earned him a painful exile from his country and a large quotient of moral authority in the West.

Over the years, he took to his celebrity well, inspiring poems, meeting presidents and the pope, and clowning around with Picasso and Chagall. He keeps homes in London, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Lausanne, Switzerland, and has built up a valuable art collection. He also owns the magnificent Duport Stradivarius cello. Legend has it that a scratch in its side came from the spur on Napoleon’s boot.

But things are not as they once were. Mr. Rostropovich’s glory days of cello dominance are largely behind him, and his once vaunted moral authority stems from his opposition to a regime fast fading in memory. So in recent years, he has expanded his work as a conductor, drawing deeply on his close relationships with composers, including three of the major figures of the 20th century: Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten. Mr. Rostropovich’s playing inspired each of them to write works that have become cornerstones of the cello repertory; he speaks of those composers today like family members; and he is surely one of the most passionate interpreters of their music, a rare living link to their worlds, a bridge to both their personal artistic visions and the broader cultural milieus from which their music was born.

Shostakovich has been almost an obsession of late, thanks in part to the composer’s centenary year, which has brought a spate of festivals and special programming. Mr. Rostropovich — or Slava, as he is almost universally known — will lead the New York Philharmonic this week in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and First Violin Concerto (with Maxim Vengerov as soloist). Later in the fall, he returns to the National Symphony in Washington, for its Shostakovich festival. Just recently, he has led performances in Seattle and in San Francisco, where he recently sat for an interview in his spacious suite on a private floor of the Ritz Carlton.

Though he cuts a more diminutive figure these days, the once burly Mr. Rostropovich is still a charismatic force: playful, prone to bear hugs and completely uninhibited in his connection to the past. Flanked by two adoring Russians, a translator and his wife, Mr. Rostropovich nonetheless chose to barrel through in his own broken English, along with vivid nonverbal cues. (At one point he sang a campy version of Stalin’s favorite folk song, which Shostakovich once smuggled into a cello concerto.) When the phone rang in midsentence, he bounded from his chair to answer. (It was Mikhail Baryshnikov calling.) But throughout the wide-ranging conversation, Shostakovich was a leitmotif.

“He was the most important man in my life, after my father,” Mr. Rostropovich said. “Sometimes when I’m conducting, I see his face coming to me. Sometimes it’s not really a happy face — I conduct maybe a bit too slow, so I conduct faster, and the face disappears.”

The two met in 1943, not long after Mr. Rostropovich had lost his own father. Their connection deepened as he studied in Shostakovich’s orchestration class at the Moscow Conservatory. They began performing together, and Shostakovich later dedicated many works to Mr. Rostropovich, the first being the Cello Concerto No. 1, of 1959. When Mr. Rostropovich alights on this story, his face grows bright.

“When he played the concerto for me in St. Petersburg, I was so impressed,” Mr. Rostropovich said, “and he told me: ‘Slava, do you really like this composition, or not so much like it? Because if you tell me you like, then I dedicate to you this composition.’ I was in so deep shock.

“After that I so loved him, I learned it by memory in four days. I then came with my pianist to Shostakovich and said, ‘I would like to play your concerto for you.’ He tells me, ‘Slava, one second, I give you some music stands.’ I tell him, ‘Not needed, my friend.’ It was the most fantastic moment in my life.”

Over years of performing and recording Shostakovich’s music, Mr. Rostropovich has naturally developed strong opinions on interpretation. The most obvious is his belief in extremes of volume. He routinely coaxes from orchestras a spectrum far wider than the norm, from a calm sea of pianissimo dotted with tiny swells from individual string players, to a brutal, crushing fortissimo. In the San Francisco Symphony, the woodwind players seated directly in front of the brass section have special shields extending from their chairs to protect their ears. When Mr. Rostropovich came recently to lead performances of Shostakovich, you could be sure those players were grateful.

“Extremes are absolutely needed for Shostakovich,” Mr. Rostropovich said. “He once told me something that I tell to all orchestras when I am rehearsing. ‘Slava,’ he said, ‘if I want to insult some musician, I tell him, “You are not a real musician, you are just a mezzo-fortiste.” ‘ “

Despite his close connection to the man, Mr. Rostropovich has little patience with the so-called Shostakovich wars, the often vitriolic debate over whether the composer partially sympathized with the Soviet regime or privately dissented from it. “You know, that’s so unimportant,” he said, adding that he had never even read “Testimony,” Shostakovich’s highly controversial and largely discredited memoirs, “as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov.” “Now it’s only a war between musicologists.”

“Shostakovich was a very complicated personality,” he added, saying the composer was sometimes capable of lying so as not to disappoint people. “I think that only in music was he absolutely honest. In music, like in a letter, he wrote what he feels about music, about life.”

Mr. Rostropovich is hardly the only one to hear in music of Shostakovich an expression of deeper existential and communal truths tied to the dark era of its birth. Some have also found a kind of collective empathy, an ability to give voice to the grim plight and flickering hopes of the individual living under the thumb of the Soviet system. Premieres of Shostakovich symphonies could be grand public rituals where, thanks to music’s essential ambiguity, the public and the party officials alike could hear whatever message they wished. But whether triumphalist or subversive, that musical message in its time was freighted with an importance and an urgency that can be difficult to comprehend for anyone who did not experience it directly.

“Music in the Soviet period was very, very important to the people,” Mr. Rostropovich said. “It was a bit like medicine.” At that point, Larisa Gesin, the translator’s wife, who had been sitting quietly, burst in, as if to underline the idea. “Shostakovich was our life,” she said imploringly. “Shostakovich was everything. It was easier to live because he spoke the ideas about life that youcouldn’t talk about.”

Ultimately, it is this urgency of approach and commitment to music as a vehicle for a broader moral message — attitudes vanishing even in the former Soviet Union — that Mr. Rostropovich tries to communicate to orchestras he works with. His limited English and unconventional conducting style can make that a tricky task, but ensembles usually get the message.

“When the chips are down, the orchestra will play the way his personality is,” said Mark H. Lawrence, the principal trombonist of the San Francisco Symphony. “It’s inside and just comes out, and we respond to that.”

Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, concurs: “What he has to communicate to musicians is not usually done via the typical conductor channels. Stick technique, efficient use of rehearsal time — it’s sort of irrelevant when you’re talking about Slava. He just comes at the music with such a visceral feeling for it.”

That feeling comes through best in Mr. Rostropovich’s own cello playing, so when he led the Philharmonic last year, Mr. Brey set up his laptop backstage and screened DVD’s of Mr. Rostropovich performing at the peak of his career for his cello colleagues. “It’s easy to forget that he had this separate life as one of the greatest string instrumentalists that ever lived,” Mr. Brey said. “I had grown up knowing the recordings, and yet to watch him in these live performances in a context of such instrumental brilliance and perfection had us dumbfounded.”

Many of Mr. Rostropovich’s famous recordings date back to the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, when he was touring more widely in the West, thanks to the cultural thaw initiated by Khrushchev after Stalin’s death. “It was like a tornado blowing into the neighborhood,” Mr. Brey said. But the Brezhnev era brought further crackdowns on artists, including attacks on Mr. Solzhenitsyn. Expelled from the writer’s union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn needed shelter and a place to work, so Mr. Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, provided refuge in their country home outside Moscow.

When the denunciations continued, Mr. Rostropovich wrote a letter defending Mr. Solzhenitsyn and attacking state criticism of the arts. He made copies for four Russian newspapers and dropped them in a mailbox at the airport when leaving the country for a concert tour in 1970. Around two weeks later, he said, camera crews showed up at his concert, and the telltale car, a black Volga, was waiting at his hotel. The letter had been leaked. The K.G.B., he said, questioned him, not believing it to be genuine: ” ‘Who made this provocation against you?’ I told them, ‘My friends, excuse me, it’s my letter.’ “

Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr’s son and a pianist and conductor, speaking recently by phone from Australia, called the gesture “an act of tremendous civic bravery,” while conceding that “the letter may not have ultimately made any difference” in his father’s case. It did make a profound difference for Mr. Rostropovich and Ms. Vishnevskaya, whose careers were effectively shut down, as they were denied major appearances at home for four years, and concert presenters who called from abroad were informed by the state-run concert agency that they were sick or unavailable.

It was a devastating time for them, but after Senator Edward M. Kennedy intervened at Leonard Bernstein’s urging, permission for an exit visa was finally granted. In 1974, Mr. Rostropovich and Ms. Vishnevskaya were permitted a two-year leave, which would become an exile lasting until 1990. (Their Soviet citizenship was stripped in 1978.) Mr. Rostropovich recalled a wrenching goodbye with Shostakovich, whom he did not see again; the composer died the following year.

The American cellist David Finckel recalled encountering a stunned Mr. Rostropovich in the office of his British manager only weeks after his arrival in the West. “All over the room, on every surface, were piles and piles of mail,” Mr. Finckel said. “They were packages and invitations from practically every symphony orchestra in the world, inviting him to come and play. He was absolutely overwhelmed and pale like a ghost. He said to me, ‘You know, I really didn’t think that anybody still wanted to hear me.’ “

Most musicians and critics rave about Mr. Rostropovich’s cello playing at its peak, but his conducting career, as the music director of the National Symphony in Washington and then as a guest conductor all over the world, has not enjoyed the same near-unanimous acclaim. In recent years, critics have been particularly tough in Moscow, but this fall, after a seven-year hiatus from performing there, Mr. Rostropovich returned to conduct a new production of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” at the Bolshoi Theater. Then, in November, less than two weeks before the scheduled premiere, he withdrew from the production, citing insufficient rehearsal time. “I had no possibility of making it at my level,” he said, seeming uneager to linger on the details.

Yet as the talk pushed past the two-hour mark, Mr. Rostropovich was still waxing enthusiastic about his past friends and, specifically, the connection he had brokered between Shostakovich and Britten, whom he calls simply Ben. At one point, he sang what he said was Shostakovich’s favorite phrase from a tenor solo in Britten’s “War Requiem.” Then he stopped in midsentence. His eyes welled up. “Excuse me,” he said, removing his glasses. “Such people are no longer in this world.”

Mr. Brey recounted a similar moment last year, when Mr. Rostropovich was standing in front of the New York Philharmonic, discussing Prokofiev and Shostakovich. “It was clear that he felt he was the last standard bearer for that generation,” Mr. Brey said, “and that he was very close to breaking down in tears at this thought. There was an almost childlike simplicity in the way he said, ‘I miss them, I miss my friends.'”

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This story was published on April 16, 2006 in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times¬†under the headline “Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, and Me.” Photo of Rostropovich on Selected Writing page: RIA Novosti archive, image #6848 / Mikhail Ozerskiy. From September 18, 1959.