Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Death of Rostropovich

Because I was traveling or reveling Thursday and Friday I missed the death of Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the great musicians -- and great human beings -- of the 20th century. He died in Moscow, his true home, from which he was exiled for 20 years, on Friday at the age of 80.

Rostropovich was almost certainly the greatest cellist of his own time, though he would be the first to pay tribute to his elders Gregor Piatagorsky, Pablo Casals and Pierre Fournier and to appreciate younger artists like Yo Yo Ma. He was passionate and romantic yet unerringly musical, with flawless technique. When he played Dvorak or Elgar, you lived the music with him, and he inspired cello pieces from Shostakovich, Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten and others, adding greatly to the cello repertoire.

He was also married to Galina Vishnevskaya, a sporano of unearthly vocal beauty. The first recording of the Verdi Requiem I purchased, back in the early '60s, featured the Moscow Philharmonic with Igor Markevich as conductor and Vishnevskaya as soprano soloist. The Verdi is operatic sacred music with devilishy difficult, highly exposed solo parts. Vishnevskaya was the star of that performance.

After Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident novelist, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, the Soviet establishment attacked him and wouldn't allow him to travel to accept the prize. Rostropovich embraced him even though Solzhenitsyn, whatever his formidable literary qualities, was a notably prickly character who was not easy to like. But for Rostropovich it was a metter of principle.

Solzhenitsyn was exiled to the U.S. and Rostropovich became virtually a non-person in the Soviet Union. The world-famopus musician was almost completely barred from the concert stage and even when he appeared newspapers were not allowed to mention his name. Finally, in 1974, he was given a two-year tourist visa, and he didn't return until 1990. I was living in Washington then, and I remember the excitement when he became conductor of the NAtional Symphony Orchestra. He wasn't the most technically proficient conductor but was one of the most passionate, capable of inspiring his musicians to supreme efforts. As a conductor he was perhaps the finest exponent of Shostakovich's music.

He was able to return to the Soviet Union in 1990, when Gorbachev was liberalizing, and spent much of his last years in Russia. Exile seems especially difficult for Russians, and it was gratifying that Rostropovich lived to see communism fall. (Never mind that the current regime is hardly a model of enlightenment; communism was worse.)

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