Tuesday, February 14, 2017 — Although Mstislav Rostropovich died 10 years ago, on April 27th 2007, he remains a powerful presence on the world’s cultural scene through his legacy as the greatest cellist of his time, as a brave advocate of human rights, and as a man of proverbial generosity and charisma, often known simply by his nickname, Slava. He would have celebrated his 90th birthday in 2017.
The phenomenal richness of his life and art is expressed in a magnificent 43-disc set to be released by Warner Classics on March 24th 2017: Mstislav Rostropovich: Cellist of the Century. It forms the centerpiece of the label’s Rostropovich program for 2017, which also includes: eight releases of individual CDs taken from the set and a double LP of the Dvořák Cello Concerto and Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 1 (Giulini/London Philharmonic Orchestra).
Mstislav Rostropovich: Cellist of the Century has been curated by Warner Classics in close collaboration with Rostropovich’s daughters Elena and Olga Rostropovich, whose mother was the celebrated soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich’s wife from 1955 until his death. The label was given unprecedented access to Rostropovich’s personal archive; as a result, many rare photos and documents – including a letter of support for dissident Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn – enrich the 200-page hardback book that forms part of the box set. It also includes a comprehensive chronology and fascinating articles by Elizabeth Wilson, one of Rostropovich’s students, and by Claude Samuel, a former head of Radio France and a close friend of Rostropovich.
The set, conceived as a deluxe edition, comprises 40 CDs and 3 DVDs and contains an even balance of studio and live recordings. The range and variety of music it offers is nothing short of extraordinary, embracing works by more than 60 composers. For solo cello, cello and piano, cello and chamber group, and cello and orchestra, they extend from the Baroque to the latter part of the 20th century and from essential repertoire to rarities. They also reflect both Rostropovich’s mastery of the traditional cello repertoire and his commitment to new music: the dedicatee of over 120 new works, he numbered such composers as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten among his close friends. A number of the live performances featured originate from Russian tapes saved from destruction by resourceful Soviet archivists when Rostropovich was exiled from the USSR (1974-1990), and which came back to light in the late 1990s. Another highlight is the complete Bach Cello Suites, presented here in both audio and video versions. In many senses these represent the culmination of Rostropovich’s recording career; he waited until 1991 to set them down the studio. The box also contains a substantial and previously unpublished audio interview, dating from 2006, in which Rostropovich discusses Shostakovich with the journalist Jon Tolansky.
Mstislav Rostropovich was born in Baku, Azerbaijan (then part of the Soviet Union) into a musical family: his father was a cellist, his mother a pianist. He made his concert debut at the age of 8, gave his first public concerto performance at 12 and entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1943, making his debut with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1946. He soon became established as an important performer, joining the Soviet Union’s cultural elite.
Rostropovich’s appetite for music was enormous and he became a busy proponent of living composers, giving the premieres of over 230 works, more than 120 of them dedicated to him. He was a close friend of his teachers Shostakovich and Prokofiev and of Britten and collaborated with many other composers of his time, including Bernstein, Dutilleux, Khachaturian, Lutosławski, Penderecki, Piazzolla, and Schnittke. He also taught or mentored such cellists as Jacqueline de Pré and Natalia Gutman and built a reputation as a conductor, notably as Music Director of Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra (1977-1994).
Not only was Rostropovich a towering musician, he became a figure of international humanitarian and political significance: he and his wife, the celebrated soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012), were exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 (and deprived of Soviet citizenship in 1978) for their support of the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970. They left Russia with nothing and did not return until 1990, the era of Glasnost and Perestroika; Rostropovich played an active role in promoting ideological change at this momentous period in his country’s and the world’s history. In November 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had given an impromptu Bach solo recital at the spot known as Checkpoint Charlie.
Further back, in 1970, he had courageously written an open letter advocating artistic freedom. At the time, Solzhenitsyn was living as a guest in his country house. The Soviet newspaper Pravda refused to publish the letter, but it appeared in the West. It read: “Each human being must have the right to think for himself and to express his opinion without fear … and not merely express … the opinion which has been inculcated in him.”
In 1991 the cellist and his wife established the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation, which focuses on large-scale health programmes such as vaccination. Their daughter Elena is now its president. To date, its programmes have benefited more than 20 million people in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.