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On Rostropovich: Cellists Remember a Master

Mstislav Rostropovich became the musical director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1977, but he continued to perform.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
Mstislav Rostropovich became the musical director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1977, but he continued to perform.

Mstislav Rostropovich was many things: a commanding conductor, a political dissident, a public figure in the world of classical music. But before all that, he played the cello.

One year after his death at 80, there remains a generation of cellists — really, several generations — who remember the experience of hearing Rostropovich perform on stage.

Matt Haimovitz is the cellist known for performing J.S. Bach's cello suites in nightclubs and restaurants. "The sound that Slava produced could cut through anything," he says. "Just seeing this man projecting to the last corners of the hall with his sheer sound and will."

Fred Sherry is a professor of cello at the Juilliard School. "I think people in the audience were bowled over by not only his playing, but his endurance and the life in his playing," Sherry says. "This guy came out and he was an animal on the stage. You could say he's the Marlon Brando of the cello."

David Soyer was the founding cellist of the Guarnieri Quartet, and remembers Rostropovich's first Carnegie Hall concerts. "Completely unknown guy, appeared from Russia and played wonderfully," he says.

Only in her mid-20s, Alisa Weilerstein has already performed with many of the nation's top orchestras. "He was so, so moving and so natural," she says. "I'm not the type that cries at concerts, but I lost it completely."

'That Sound'

It was that rich sound that got them. The remarkable Rostropovich tone "opened" the instrument in a way — nobody had played quite like it.

David Finckel, best known for his work with the Emerson Quartet, once studied cello with Rostropovich. "Rostropovich always liked to say in master classes, 'Cellists' number one problem is sound,'" Finckel says. "Violins can always be heard — it's much easier to hear higher sounds. And as soon as you get lower, you have the challenge of dealing with whatever accompaniment may be there, not to mention ambient noise."

For Rostropovich, this was the whole point of playing the cello: To defy its limitations, to exhaust its possibilities.

"I was 7 years old, but the impact of the sound that he was creating — I was fascinated by it," Matt Haimovitz says. "I couldn't understand how so much sound was coming out of one instrument."

Maya Beiser is an acclaimed performer of contemporary classical and new music who helped found the Bang on a Can All-Stars. "You know, his cello is almost horizontal," she says. "He had this kind of way that he was just completely kind of on top of the instrument. Totally owning it, you know?"

On Wax

For cellists and aspiring cellists, Rostropovich was a powerhouse in the concert hall. But they all listened to him on record, as well.

There was his recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. And the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto. ("It was just as though I had seen the light," David Finkel says.) Not to mention Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, written specifically for his friend Slava.

What is interesting, and telling, is that even with Rostropovich's great recordings as a soloist, all the cellists mentioned a particular, unlikely, and very fruitful collaboration. The Russian teamed with the great 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten to produce a definitive take on Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, adapted for cello and piano.

Beyond the Bow

But the cellists say there was something else in Rostropovich's playing — something behind his bow that actually altered his tone.

Cellist James Krieger: "For me it was the commitment — all the time, actually, not just playing the cello."

David Finckel: "There was something about the musicality of his presence that just made everybody feel more musical, more connected to the music, and more able to come to his label somehow."

Matt Haimovitz: "There was a sincerity. There was a connection that he was making with his music. He could make anybody sing — no matter how difficult, he could overcome all this, and make it seem as natural as the human voice."

Some players are defined by their art. The great violinist Jascha Heifetz comes to mind as one who was a violinist: first, last, and always.

For Rostropovich, it was different. His art was defined by him — by all of the things he was apart from the cello. He poured it all in there. And what came out stunned and impressed cellists of every stripe — not to mention the rest of us.

Copyright 2008 WNYC

Sara Fishko