Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)

Mstislav Rostropovich’s death, on April 27 in Moscow, reportedly from cancer, silences not just one of the greatest musicians of the past century but one of the few cultural figures of our time to exert real moral authority in politics and statecraft.

Known almost universally as Slava – the nickname is Russian for "glory" – Rostropovich was a protégé and exponent of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other leading composers of the Soviet Union. As his fame spread beyond his homeland, he formed close associations with Western composers such as Britten and Bernstein. He was the inspiration and/or dedicatee of works for cello by those figures as well as Walton, Auric, Kabalevsky, Miaskovsky, Lutoslawski, Panufnik, Messiaen, Schnittke, Dutilleux, Pärt, Penderecki, Foss and Kancheli. (That's a partial list, from the obituary in The New York Times.) No musician of his generation, and few others in musical history, worked as closely with so many composers.

Those associations and the musical fruit they bore, and Rostropovich’s robustly virtuosic interpretations of standard cello literature, well-documented in audio and video, form an artistic legacy that ultimately will outshine his role as a Soviet dissident in the 1970s and activist for democracy in Russia and other former East Bloc states. (The fragility of his political legacy was painfully evident in his last public appearance, a celebration of his 80th birthday at the Kremlin, at which he was toasted by the budding autocrat Vladimir Putin.)

Rostropovich the cultural freedom fighter will be remembered longer and more fondly in this part of the United States, thanks to his direction of Washington’s National Symphony (1977-94). During that period he made the orchestra a refuge for émigré musicians and a sounding board for musical critiques of the Stalinist mindset, from Shostakovich’s rowdy satire "Rayok" to Penderecki’s wrenching "Polish Requiem." No dissident of the era had a more public platform, and Slava was masterful at using it.

His passions and enthuasiasm, in art and life alike, were irresistible. In his presence you were embraced, figuratively when not literally. Whoever coined the term "charm offensive" might have had Slava in mind. He dazzled Washington.

As a conductor, Rostropovich thrived on tension and the big rhetorical gesture, which he used to powerful effect in Russian music, especially Shostakovich’s. His ear for refined sonority did not extend much past the string sections, his technical control of the orchestra was often shaky, and his readings of non-Russian scores could be quite eccentric. (He took to English music, thanks no doubt to Britten, and developed surprising fluency in contemporary American music.)

He was at his best performing within the Russian tradition and collaborating with living composers. Forming an emotional bond was intrinsic to his music-making.

For Slava, in music and life beyond music, if it mattered it was personal.