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The 'Superman' of the cello

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

By Benjamin IvrySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 2002


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.

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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?

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.