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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Slava, the naive and sentimental

By Norman Lebrecht / May 2, 2007

Not many musicians are laid to rest opposite their head of state, but Mstislav Rostropovich earned his plot at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, across the central path from Boris Yeltsin. Not that the two men were natural companions. What joined them in history was one of the cellist’s spontaneous inspirations – his rush to an airport in August 1991 to fly out and play at Yeltsin’s side outside the Russia Parliament in the face of growling tanks, leading the nation’s resistance to a communist counter-coup. He had done much the same two years previously when the Berlin Wall burst open, playing Bach for hours in fresh rubble before he was spotted by photographers and snapped as an icon.

Slava, to those who knew him, was always more than a musician. He was a sensor of his times and a moral guardian, a hero who acted on impulse for the good of mankind. I saw him first the morning he was stripped of Soviet citizenship in 1978, hounded over his support for the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. ‘How can they take away my birthright?’ he cried, sobbing helplessly before the world’s cameras. A cynical press man asked whether he hadn’t expected official retaliation for his dissidence. Slava stared back uncomprehendingly, lost for words. It was not in his nature to calculate the consequences of the right thing to do.

He had never met Solzhenitsyn when in October 1969, hearing he had been driven from his home and was sick with cancer, he offered the Nobel Prize winner the use of a service flat at his dacha. Within days, Slava was denounced as an enemy of the people. This came as a surprise to a musician who had played the system pretty much as he pleased, beguiling the bureaucracy with foreign gifts and the hard currency he earned. ‘He was the only one who took the Soviets on and got away with it,’ says the London impresario Victor Hochhauser. When Benjamin Britten, asked by Slava for a new work, said, ‘won’t you have to get permission to play it?’, the cellist replied: ‘I ask no-one.’

He might have got away with it again had he not written a pro-Solzhenitsyn letter to Pravda which, unpublished, got printed abroad. The Kremlin cracked down and Slava endured a travel ban until, on appeals from Edward Heath and Edward Kennedy in 1974, he was allowed out. Four years later, his citzenship was revoked. I remember his face that day in mourning, the eyes welling behind owlish specs, his soprano wife Galina stony-faced, as if they had lost the dearest thing on earth.

Mourning did not become Slava. His habit was to clunk a magnum of champagne on the table as a prelude to conversation, the beam on his face stretching wider than Cheshire, each new acquaintance a lifelong friend. ‘God give me a little bit more blessing than others,’ he told me once in his Russified English, ‘not for cello playing, but for friendship.’ At his 60th birthday party in Washington DC, where he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, I stood in the reception line between Gregory Peck and a blue-collar plumber. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked them. ‘Friend of Slava’s,’ said the Hollywood legend. ‘Friend of Slava’s,’ said the plumber.

His friends were there when needed. For his first year of exile he lived with Galina and their two daughters at the Hochhausers’ home in Holland Park. At the hosts’ Sabbath table, he hummed along with Hebrew hymns and transposed them later for cello. By lineage and faith he was wholly Russian and Orthodox, with a sentimental attachment to Armenia, his accidental birthplace.

For a man so driven by idealism and emotion, he was shrewd as an actuary when it came to money and sometimes downright greedy. He was the highest paid soloist of his day, at $45,000 a night, and among the top conductors. He loved property and bought homes in Paris, Lausanne and London (later also in Moscow and St Petersburg), starting with a flat in Holloway and trading up to half a house in Maida Vale. Since he was never in the same town two weeks running, he made new friends in the street to do his house-sitting.

He was not prudent in his friendships, collecting such monsters as the oil tycoon Armand Hammer, and his support for Yeltsin’s presidency ran into justifying his Chechnya war. Once, bombing down a French autoroute, he told me how the wicked Chechens had hired Olympic marksmen to ping Russian soldiers in the leg, before wiping out the medics who came to treat them. It was the kind of propaganda that belonged to the raped Belgian nuns of the First World War, but Slava swallowed Yeltsin’s fables and stared down my scepticism. We were heading for Vezelay, a medieval village where he chose to record the Bach suites charmed, he said, by the acoustic of the church – more likely, I thought, by the village’s triple-starred restaurant. Either way, it was hard to imagine a happier man at his work.

Good food, copious drink and extremely bad jokes were as much a part of Slava as the gigantic tone he drew from the cello. He read widely, indiscriminately, and was curious to the last, though depressed by recent events and failing health. He had ended a long relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra, one of his favourite bands, over its announcement of Valery Gergiev as chief conductor. ‘I don’t want to speak,’ he said, when I called some months ago, ‘I am too sad.’

That is not, however, how he will be remembered. As a cellist, he inspired more new works – around 270 – than any soloist in history; as a conductor he commanded respect despite vagaries of beat; and as a public figure he followed his heart. When he played Bach for us at Sainte-Madeleine in Vezelay, even the gargoyles smiled.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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