Bruno Monsaingeon Delves Into Rostropovich

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THE INDOMITABLE BOW: A FILM BY BRUNO MONSAINGEON / also includes TCHAIKOVSKY: Variations on a Rococo Theme: Variations VII & VIII, coda.+ BEETHOVEN: Piano Trio No. 7, “Archduke.”* BACH: Cello Suite No. 2 in d min.: Sarabande / Mstislav Rostropovich, cel; *Yehudi Menuhin, vln; *Wilhelm Kempff, pno; +Boston Symphony Orch.; +Seiji Ozawa, cond / also contains conversations with Olga & Elena Rostropovich, Natalia & Ignat Solzhenitsyn / Naxos 2.110583 (DVD)

In addition to being a great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich’s contribution to the world was that he used his fame to commission, inspire and perform more new works for the cello than any other such artist in the 20th century. Sadly, not all of them have become standard repertoire—cellists still cling to such works as the Dvořák Cello Concerto (a good piece, but sentimental and maudlin in places) as more important to their repertoire than many of the very great cello concerti written since, which in some ways nullifies much of the hard work Rostropovich did to break that barrier.

He was also a conductor, though in this sphere he was often slow and sentimental in his approach, and a humanitarian who fought against the Soviet regime in tandem with his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who survived him by five years.

This video portrait by Bruno Monsaingeon had its origins in the year 2000, when Rostropovich invited him to his house in Paris “to hand over a whole trunkful of film material about him. An indescribable jumble – and not always usable at that, given that it was often lacking in any information about the sources of the footage – but nevertheless containing a number of treasures.

“When I left late that night, after a considerable number of vodkas…I asked him if he might…consider my making a film about him one day. ‘No, no!’ he said, ‘only after I’m dead!’”

And here is that film. In it, Rostrapovich makes it clear that, for most Soviet musicians, music was their whole world; it absorbed everything. Although this is for the most part true of all musicians in all countries, it must have been exaggerated in totalitarian states of that time such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the USSR. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had much the same experience as a young man, at least until he was drafted into the German Army, and many modern-day Chinese musicians experience the same feeling. Communist and Socialist countries are hellholes for creative artists.

I didn’t know that Rostropovich’s mother was a pianist who taught at one of the conservatories or that his father was a cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals. I was also stunned to see a clip of young Rostropovich playing, when he had hair and was actually thin. Thin, I tell you! It was also particularly interesting, for me, to see him playing Popper’s virtuosic Dance of the Elves. In this, Rostropovich held his cello in a horizontal position, playing the strings as if he were playing a piano while the bow flew across them. We also learn that, when Prokofiev heard him play his cello sonata at his conservatory concert, he went backstage and told him that he’d like to revise the work to make t more compact, and that he would appreciate the cellist’s input on this revision. When Rostropovich premiered the revised version, Prokofiev told him that he wanted him to play it with pianist Sviatoslav Richter, whom he also admired greatly—which they did in November 1949. The duo became fast friends and played together whenever they could over the course of the ensuing decades. They also used to have fun together, such as the time they went to a fancy dress party. Asked to wear something special, they put on crocodile costumes! Discussing Beethoven’s cello sonatas, the cellist was asked if he “wrote well for the cello.” His response was, “No, not well—but with genius!”

Since I am writing about Rostropovich, however, I give you a little tidbit that is not commonly known. Back in the early 1940s, he once said, he “walked miles to the nearest movie theater in the snow to see films by Deanna Durbin. I was utterly infatuated with her voice. I tried to capture the quality of her singing in my playing.” So poor Deanna, who considered most of her film career a waste of her life because she hated being the Pretty Young Singer and longed for dramatic roles, actually helped contribute something to the world of classical music, second-hand.

Richter so enjoyed Rostropovich as a recital partner that he became upset when the cellist pursued a big solo career. “He was ambitious, “ Richter groused,” and I hated that. But it was his mother who told him not to share his success.” Yet, of course, they did perform together whenever they could in later years as well. And of course, both artists LOVED being able to escape the CCCP and play in the West. “It was a breath of fresh air” was the cellist’s understatement,” and a great privilege.” But Rostropovich preceded Richter’s debut in the west; he was only the third Soviet musician to tour America, after David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels. He never suffered stage fright, he said, because he was playing “works of genius,” and these covered his own personality. He was not Mistislav Rostropovich, but Beethoven, Prokofiev etc. before the public.

We also get to see and hear Daniil Schafran, considered the “number two” Soviet cellist of the time, not well known in the West. Richter tells us that he played with him, too, and that he had a great sound, but that “Rostropovich was infinitely more interesting. Rostropovich dwarfed him.” But the two cellists respected each other.

The cellist’s wife, Galina Vishkevskaya, had a somewhat white and wiry-sounding soprano that was not much appreciated by Western ears, but she was such an expressive singer that she became famous in England and America as well. They were married four days after they met and from that point on he was her permanent accompanist at the piano, but his cello-playing schedule was so hectic that he often had to learn his parts at the last minute, just a few days before each concert.

The couple also allowed Alexandre Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, to live and stay in one of their homes rent-free. The writer survived on spaghetti for two yearswhile writing this book. They admired him because he was a Soviet dissident, and came under fire and scrutiny from the authorities because of this, but it should be remembered that Solzhenitsyn was not a lover of freedom. He only hated the Soviets because he wanted Russian to return to the era of the Czars and have a theocracy run by the Russian Orthodox Church. But the book was important and eye-opening to the West, and they did a good deed by protecting him.

But this action took its toll. He was ejected from his post at the Bolshoi and his concerts in major cities were canceled. He began drinking more heavily than was good for him. When pianist Wilhelm Kempff invited him to come and play with him and Yehudi Menuhin, the Soviet authorities told him the cellist was sick. Kempff called his home and frantically asked how his health was. When Galina told him he was fine, Kempff sent a furious telegram to Brezhnev. Menuhin also called and threatened to tell the press that the Soviets were liars. Rostropovich made a miraculous “recovery,” receiving his visa the next day, and was allowed to go to Paris to play Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. That performance is included on the DVD as a bonus feature. Yet the couple remained Soviet citizens and did not defect; they loved Russia too much. Had they defected, their careers would have blossomed even more, but they’d have been miserable though they stayed on the West for years, eventually renting an apartment in Paris in 1976. The cellist’s daughter became his accompanist. In 1978, Isvestia published an article claiming that the couple was engaged in “anti-Soviet activities” and had become “degenerates.” They were stripped of their citizenship on the grounds that their activities “are undermining the prestige of the Soviet Union.” They were devastated, but Oistrakh told them if they loved their country not to go back but just to “plant a silver birch in the garden.”

Happily, he found a real home in the West, accepted and loved not only by fellow artists but also by heads of state of several countries. His outgoing personality blossomed, and he was loved the world over. He also became a conductor in addition to being a cellist and pianist. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1990, the couple’s citizenship was restored. They were finally allowed to go home again, which they did for three miraculous days.

Over the decades, Rostropovich premiered 105 new works for cello, including 50 concerti. Among those who composed for him were Shostakovich, Dutilleux, Britten (only a sonata, not a concerto), Bernstein, Copland, Penderecki and Lutosławski. Gennady Rozhdestvensky claims that the only composer who turned him down was Stravinsky, but that may have been because Slava was still a Soviet citizen at the time and Stravinsky, who hated the regime, feared it might be used as political propaganda. Another plausible reason may have been that he was then writing in the 12-tone system and hadn’t composed a concerto of any sort for about 20 years. Not everyone was happy about this, however, Other cellists and conductors felt that most of the new music he played was inferior to the “classics,” and even Vishnevskaya said he was wasting his time “on worthless stuff, pieces he probably wouldn’t play again.” Slava’s response was that if only one out of ten of them were good, the effort was worth it, and certainly several works he commissioned have entered the standard repertoire. (As for Penderecki, I’m sorry but even his cello concerto sounds pointlessly ugly to me.) Can we imagine the world today without, say, the Dutilleux or Lutosławski concerti? I certainly can’t, and to be honest, I prefer both of them to the Dvořák Concerto. (Yes, I know, this is musical blasphemy to many, but I do like the Dvořák, I just don’t love it.)

And that’s pretty much his story.

As for the bonus features, I watched the first movement of the “Archduke” Trio and about as much as I could take of Tchaikovsky’s sappy, overly-Romantic Variations. I skipped the stuff with Solzhenitsyn’s son and daughter and Slava’s two daughters, but you might find this of interest. Overall, a very nice film to see at last once to gain the full measure of this great cellist’s career.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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