Saturday, April 28, 2007


The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich died yesterday. John Culshaw's autobiography, Putting the Record Straight, had some material about working with Rostropovich (on some recordings with Benjamin Britten), so I thought I'd transcribe that here. The "distinguished elderly British composer" whose concerto Rostropovich reluctantly premiered was Arthur Bliss.

He turned out to be a warm, dedicated man with an endearing -- if occasionally bruising -- habit of greeting anyone he liked with a massive bear-hug. In Kingsway Hall he worked as I had never, in all the years, seen an artist work before: he could hear, and wanted to correct, imperfections which were not always apparent to me or, I think, even to Britten. The orchestra observed all this with something like awe -- yet he was not beyond turning to the first cellist and asking how he would bow or finger a particular passage. It was just a question of music-making, and nothing else (but nothing else) mattered. At that stage conversation was somewhat limited, for although he knew more English than Vishnevskaya, who was his wife, it was still very primitive. He and Britten had therefore invented something they called Aldeburgh Deutsch, since both of them spoke a little German; its first principle was the abolition of any rules applying to the definite article -- die, der, and das were interchangeable at random. The familiar du replaced Sie except when you specifically wanted to say "they." Somehow, it worked.

Between sessions we used to eat at the pub called the Nag's Head, across the stage door at Covent Garden, and it was during one of those meals that I said (in simple words) how penetrating I had found his performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto. To my amazement, he pulled a face: he didn't, he said, think very much of the work. I was left to ponder how it could be that someone open enough to admit such an opinion could still give a performance of such perception and beauty as he had done during that series of concerts. Fanciful theories did not appeal to me, but since I had no doubt that he meant what he had said it seemed impossible to avoid the conclusion that somehow, during the performance, he had become possessed by an insight which overruled his conscious intellectual judgement.

Although there were no signs of it then, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later he and his wife would defect to the West and be stripped of their Soviet citizenship in the process. That was not to happen for another ten years or so, but he already paid scant attention to officialdom of any kind, irrespective of nationality. He could not pay lip-service. When, a few years later, the directors of the Aldeburgh Festival commissioned a distinguished elderly British composer to write a new work for them, he turned in a piece for cello and orchestra with the request that it might have its first performance by Rostropovich. It was not very good. Slava -- as we all called him by then -- gave it a close examination and then, in his much improved English, said to Britten, "When I am in Russia I am obliged to play Russian shit, which is no reason why I should play British shit when I come to England." Then he added, "But if you want me to play it, I will." And he did.

On another occasion he bought a Land-Rover and stuffed it full of consumer goods unobtainable in Russia. He then set off to drive from Aldeburgh to Moscow, although the rest of us were at pains to point out how many customs posts he would have to cross and that, if he was obliged to unpack the Land-Rover for inspection, he would never in a thousand years get everything back inside again, if only because he moved himself and other objects rather like a bulldozer. He waved all such observations aside, and several days later rang from Moscow to say that he and his goods had arrived intact. We asked him how. "If there was no queue, I stopped," he said, "and they were always very understanding. But if there was a queue I drove straight on. Is the best, no?" Only he could have got away with that.

Much the same applied some five years later, when he was appearing as a conductor with the Bolshoi Opera in East Berlin and I was a member of the jury in a conductors' competition organized by Herbert Von Karajan in West Berlin. It happened to be a time when feelings at Checkpoint Charlie were at their most sensitive, and the guards on both sides were operating strictly according to the rules. Yet every day Slava used to drive over to West Berlin and buy goods for members of the company, which he then quite openly trundled back in the Land-Rover. "What if they won't let you through?" I asked him one day. "What if I tell them I'm not going to conduct tonight?" he replied.

1 comment:

thatsthespirit said...

Fascinating stuff. Shows the power that art can have over politics, I guess.