In 1943, Mstislav Rostropovich, already a famously incandescent young cellist but an indifferent pianist and composer, sat down at a keyboard in the Moscow Conservatory and banged nervously through a piano concerto he had written. He had an audience of one: Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer was noncommittal about the piece, but he became Rostropovich’s neighbor, regular collaborator and close friend. It was one of the most significant meetings in 20th-century musical history. Shostakovich dedicated both of his cello concertos to Rostropovich, who reciprocated by dedicating much of his life to playing and conducting Shostakovich’s music.
Rostropovich was a prodigious and fiercely loyal collector of friends. In 1948, when Sergei Prokofiev stood accused of the vague but serious charge of “formalism in music,” the cellist lived with him, played his pieces, and scrounged him up some money for food. Later generations of cellists must be eternally grateful for his staunchness, since in exchange for it, he extracted from Prokofiev and Shostakovich some of the instrument’s most central repertoire.
It’s not surprising that Rostropovich should have played the music of his Russian composer buddies with a sense of intimacy, but he also played Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Bach with the authority of a man who had just knocked back a couple of shots with the composer. At times, that was almost literally the case. On a visit to Prague in 1950, he found himself working on the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the conductor Vaclav Talich, who passed on an interpretive point that the composer himself had made to him more than half a century before. The result is a performance that floats on that current of connection.
Rostropovich did not have an especially velvety, patrician sound or liquid legato; in the first cascading notes of the Saint-SaÃ«ns Cello Concerto, you can hear the rubbing of horsehair on string. But what’s unmistakable about his playing is the electric charge buzzing through each phrase. That energy has the quality of breath, intensifying and abating so that every note feels blazingly alive. In his later Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Herbert von Karajan leads the Berlin Philharmonic through the introduction with his characteristic fleecy warmth and broad phrasing. Then Rostropovich enters as if bursting through a door. Much of the excitement of the performance comes from the conflict between the orchestra’s luminous perfectionism and the soloist’s apparently spontaneous exuberance. It’s a deliberate and carefully regulated tension, though: Rostropovich was neither a go-it-alone eccentric nor an over-emoter.
Almost universally considered the world’s greatest cellist, he was a man who wore his feelings easily, both onstage and off. He lavished bear hugs and kisses on new friends, was quick to tears and played concertos for the hundredth time as if for the very first – or last. Balding, unpretentious and sober in an ever-present pinstriped suit, he was the last superstar of classical music, a throwback to an era when a man who played Tchaikovsky made a difference in international relations. He turned his instrument into a tool of protest and statecraft.
His most audacious act of principled friendship came in 1970. Rostropovich was an international celebrity by then – he had made his Carnegie Hall debut 14 years earlier – and his talent provided him with a tenuous cushion of privilege. The dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, embarrassing a regime that had tried to silence him. Others kept their distance from the ornery writer; Rostropovich turned his dacha over to him and defended him in a letter that was secretly passed around, smuggled out of the country, and published in the West. The Kremlin declared him an instant non-person, canceling his concerts, removing his name from posters and cutting him off from the musical world.
“For me, at 47, life ended,” Rostropovich told Time magazine in 1990. “I was born anew on May 26, 1974. There was no continuity. I was truly like a newborn. I couldn’t speak the language of the place I was in. I had no place to live. I had no real friends.”
He moved to the West and lived in Paris, Washington, and Lausanne, Switzerland. Though he lived as a global celebrity, he never became comfortable in English or let his sense of Russianness abate. His various apartments had the flavor of his homeland. He retained a zealous fondness for vodka. And he never forgot that Russians held music to be crucial because it was the only public conduit for honest expression in a country riddled with lies.
His greatest legacy may be the 80 or so pieces of music he commissioned, including major works by Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutoslawski. Late in life, Rostropovich fantasized about going back in time and persuading composers from the past to enrich his instrument’s repertoire: “We make friendship with Beethoven and Mozart, and say, ‘Come have this bottle of wine, or some vodka even better, and maybe you write something nice for cello?’”