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Last Updated: Friday, 27 April 2007, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Musical legacy of cellist legend
Mstislav Rostropovich
Rostropovich celebrated his 80th birthday in March
The celebrated Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich has died at the age of 80. James Jolly, editor-in-chief of Gramophone magazine, looks back at his musical legacy.

With the death of Mstislav Rostropovich, the musical world has lost not just one of its greatest interpreters but also one of the greatest muses of the 20th Century.

As a cellist, he was responsible for the creation of hundreds of new works, many from some of the greatest composers of the day.

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Lutoslawski and Penderecki all wrote concertos or concertante works for him, and hundreds of lesser composers were the beneficiaries of his boundless enthusiasm for new music.

'Unique human spirit'

Rostropovich was a real musical polymath. Not only was he a cellist without equal but he was also a fine conductor.

He was music director of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) from 1977 to 1994 and he enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) - those two partnerships are well represented on disc.

Mstislav Rostropovich
Rostropovich had an unconventional conducting technique

He was also an accomplished pianist, often playing for his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

But above all he was a consummate communicator in everything he did - his idiosyncratic English, his opening plea to anyone he met to 'Call me Slava', his passionate, tactile grasp of life all combined to make him a colossus and a unique human spirit.

Of all his musical friendships, it was that with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich that bore the most fruit.

Not only did Shostakovich write both of his cello concertos for Slava, but also the cello part of his setting of Alexander Blok poems.

Proms performance

Rostropovich also played as an orchestral cellist in the 1962 revival of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, renamed Katerina Ismailova.

He later recorded the work for EMI with Vishnevskaya in the title role.

As a cellist he had a large sound - a beautiful musical expression of his generous personality.

Dmitri Shostakovich
He often worked with legendary composer Dmitri Shostakovich

His recording of the Bach cello suites, made in 1995, is pure Rostropovich - heart-on-sleeve, buoyant, songful and above all, so clearly a genuine response to the composer's message.

It became a hugely successful release, selling about 250,000 copies to date.

Another non-Russian work with which he was closely associated was the Dvorak Cello Concerto, which he recorded many times.

His Deutsche Grammophon disc with Herbert von Karajan is probably the best-selling of his many versions, but by far the most charged is a live recording of a Proms performance given the day that Soviet tanks entered Prague on 21 August, 1968.

Nicholas Kenyon, the current director of the Proms, recalls hearing the concert on the radio and noted the protests within the Albert Hall.

Maxim Vengerov
Rostropovich was a mentor to violinist Maxim Vengerov

'But the irony was that Slava, as the most committed advocate of freedom, was on their side, playing a great Czech piece. At the end of the concerto, as an encore, he played a solo Bach Sarabande in tears and dedicated it, sotto voce, to the Czech people,' said Kenyon.

Rostropovich enjoyed musical partnerships with many of the world's greatest artists. He performed regularly with pianists like Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Martha Argerich.

Not only did Benjamin Britten write a number of works for Rostropovich - the cello symphony and cello suites among them - but they performed regularly as a piano and cello duo.

Thankfully, there are recordings of this inspiring partnership - not least of which are glorious accounts of cello sonatas by Debussy and Frank Bridge, works by Schubert and Schumann, as well as pieces by Britten himself.

Emotional charge

From a younger generation he championed the Korean cellist Han-Na Chang and is held to be one of violinist Maxim Vengerov's real musical mentors - they recorded works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Shchedrin and Beethoven.

He was as generous with his time and advice as he could be with a schedule that combined so many musical disciplines.

And like his friend Leonard Bernstein, Rostropovich was a musician who blossomed in front of an audience.

Some of his tempi could be broad but there was no denying the emotional charge that lay behind his interpretative decisions.

His somewhat unconventional technique as a conductor was never an impediment to his extraordinary ability to speak directly to every member of the audience.

And as a cellist: well, he was simply one of the greatest.

Obituary: Mstislav Rostropovich
27 Apr 07 |  Europe
Rostropovich: A life in music
16 Apr 02 |  Entertainment


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