The 'Superman' of the cello

Players have tried to imitate him, but no one has matched the sensational sound of 'Slava,' Mstislav Rostropovich.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At 75, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (or "Slava," as he is known) is undertaking barnstorming tours worldwide, barely pausing for tributes, such as the new commemorative CD sets from EMI and Deutsche Grammophon, and huzzahs from colleagues throughout the music world.

The former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., for 17 years has been awarded more than 40 honorary degrees and more than 90 major awards in 25 different countries, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honors in the United States.

What is the source of Mr. Rostropovich's enduring appeal?

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He's "a superman – an incredible cellist and irresistibly powerful musician with an energy that can ignite an audience," says British cellist Steven Isserlis, who will perform with Mr. Rostropovich conducting next season in London.

When he plays, "one feels that it is as if his life depends on each note – it is the urgency of his commitment that is so riveting.

"Some younger cellists do try to imitate him, I think, but it doesn't really work; nobody can emulate his charisma," Mr. Isserlis adds. "On the other hand, every cellist can learn from him."

The famed Brazilian-born cellist and teacher Aldo Parisot, a longtime fixture at the school of music at Yale University, remembers Slava's early years.

"Rostropovich is something quite phenomenal," he says. "I first heard him play in the 1950s when [Russian cellist Gregor] Piatigorsky tried to make the cello into a popular instrument with his strong personality.

"But Rostropovich added another dimension because he was a much better cellist than Piatigorsky in every way possible, with an enormous sound. We rarely ever heard anyone with such a sound and beautiful pianissimo. The palette of colors was sensational."

Rostropovich also has used his muscle in the world of classical music to persuade composers to create new works for the cello.

Nearly 200 pieces have been written for Rostropovich by noted composers such as Serge Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, Alberto Ginastera, Witold Lutoslawski, and Olivier Messiaen.

The young German cellist Alban Gerhardt, who played at a special concert for Rostropovich's 70th birthday, says, "Without Rostropovich, [cellists] would have about half the repertory we have right now.... I know stories of how he manipulated composers ... to write absolute masterpieces.

"[Cellists Pablo] Casals, or for that matter Yo-Yo Ma, could have used their positions as outstanding players much more to increase the repertory, and they didn't."

This ambitious quest occurred despite the vagaries of modern Russian history, including a period during which Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were censured for supporting the banned novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In 1974, they were deprived of Soviet citizenship while living in exile, a punishment that was finally rescinded in 1990.

That said, the Russian years created lasting personal rifts, as with a former colleague, the late pianist Sviatoslav Richter. In Mr. Richter's recent "Notebooks and Conversations" (Princeton University Press), he explains that the two musicians, once frequent partners until the 1960s, "drifted apart, for all kinds of reasons.

"[Rostropovich] always took the credit for everything and harbored ambitions that had nothing to do with music – and this from a man who was a musician to the very core of his being," Richter says. "That's something I've never been able to tolerate."

Some believe that because of his opposition to the Soviet government, Rostropovich became excessively critical of some colleagues for political reasons, for instance the superb violinist Leonid Kogan, whose reputation suffered unfairly in the West as a result.

Yet any such private, extra-musical actions are beside the point, Mr. Parisot says.

"Personality problems are irrelevant to me," he says. "A player must touch me when he plays.

"I've had arguments with Rostropovich when I was on the jury of his cello competition, but that has never diminished my respect for him."

Nor does Parisot feel that Rostropovich's extraordinary fame has overshadowed the careers of other fine cellists from his generation, such as the Hungarian-born Janos Starker, still playing splendidly at age 77, or the Russian Daniil Shafan.

"Rostropovich should be an inspiration to anyone," Parisot says.

Adds young cellist Gerhardt: "People are always jealous about greatness, but the attention Rostropovich receives is completely deserved, because ... he is one of the greatest musicians of the last 100 years.... But his fame didn't result from a huge publicity effort, as in the case of [Yo-Yo] Ma – who is also an excellent cellist, but, for me, not comparable to Rostropovich, who is much more of an original."

Gerhardt adds that Rostropovich has "raised the level of cello playing, so bad cellists can't get away as easy as they used to before – suddenly one has to play in tune and has to be heard."

"There is no question that Rostropovich shall be remembered as long as there is music in this world," Parisot says, "as one of the greatest cellists who ever lived, forever!"

• Mstislav Rostropovich appears tonight and tomorrow night in Chicago at the Symphony Center to conduct the Britten War Requiem. He will be at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, Mass., July 12 and 13, to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Other performance dates will be announced at www.angelrecords.com.

The 10 best 'Slava' recordings, early and late

Rostropovich – The Russian Years 1950-1974

EMI Classics (CDZM 72016)

Sensational early performances, including many world premières of splendid modern works.

Shostakovich, Haydn: Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Emil Gilels

BBC Legends (BBCL 4024)

Chamber-music performances with wonderful colleagues.

Schubert and Debussy sonatas

London/Decca Legends (460-974)

Magical sonata performances by Rostropovich with his friend, composer Benjamin Britten.

Mstislav Rostropovich – Dvorak, Saint-Saens Cello Concertos

Testament (SBT 1101)

Early sensational performances of two of the maestro's war horses.

Great Works for Cello & Orchestra

DG Double (2GX2 437-952)

A handy sampler of some of Rostropovich's finest outings.

Brahms Double Concerto

BBC Legends (BBCL 4050-2)

An unforgettable performance from 1964 with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and conductor Colin Davis.

Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations

BBC Legends (BBCB 8002)

Rostropovich is an ideal performer of Tchaikovsky, as conducted by Britten.

Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky

BBC Legends (BBCL 4073)

More Russian repertory in definitive performances.

Gubaidulina: The Canticle of the Sun

EMI Classics (57153)

Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina says she wrote this compelling work because Rostropovich's personality is "perpetually lit up by the sun...."

Messiaen: Concert à Quatre

DG Deutsche Grammophon (2GH 445-947)

A fine example of how Rostropovich can take a new work and make it completely his own.

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