Friday 27 April 2007

In memoriam Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)

It was announced today that great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich has died at the age of 80. There is little I can add the other obituaries that will be appearing in the next couple of days, indeed, they have added greatly to my knowledge - I knew little about his non-musical activities and was only vaguely aware he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship for having stuck by Solzhenitsyn. Still, the Soviet Union's loss was the western musical world's gain.

I shall always remember him most fondly from the first recording of his I owned: the Bach cello suites. He was not my introduction to the works. That came from Yo Yo Ma (having heard him play the prelude from the G major suite on Aaron Sorkin's incomparable show, The West Wing). But Rostropovich's was different. Somehow it seemed to dig deeper. There are some who find it too romantic an approach, but it moves me greatly every time I hear it.

I have a wonderful DVD of him and Richter playing the Beethoven cello sonatas at the 1964 Edinburgh festival. The film, in black and white, was shot in the Usher Hall. The camera work a model of simplicity (that is alien, sadly, to today's classical music broadcasts) and a standard of audience behaviour that prompts feelings of nostalgia. It may be mono and the film is such that it struggles to keep up with the titans, their furious finger-work often blurring. It started at midnight (I believe because of difficulties one or both of the artists experienced getting there, but I may be incorrect on this). But for all of that, and perhaps because of it, it is utterly compelling.

Like so many musicians, he branched out into conducting. The above disc of Shostakovich's 11th symphony (possibly my favourite or them) is rather special indeed. In fact, it gave me hopes of a whole LSO live cycle from him, but it was not to be. In the end he only recorded two others with them: 5 and 8. I only bought the 5th, which was let down by terrible sound, but I have read so many complimentary things about the 8th that I shall probably have to buy it at some point. Of course, he did record all the symphonies, and Warner recently reissued them in a bargain box. Indeed, only the other day I was browsing through my local CD shop considering them. Perhaps when I've finished working through Kondrashin's survey I shall buy them....

I suspect it is a mark of the man that so many people wrote works for him: Britten a sonata, Shostakovich a concerto, Bernstein the meditations from his Mass (and I'm sure countless further examples besides).

All in all, a towering musician and a sad loss. Still, it was a refreshing changed, when I stumbled across the news on the BBC website this morning, that his death was recorded not only as 'breaking news', but also the third headline down from the top.

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