He speaks hardly any Russian, and Rostropovich speaks hardly any English beyond excitable, gummy variations on 'goodbye' and 'thank you very much'; so they talk in what they call Aldeburgh Deutsch, a demotic lingua franca that confounds genuine Germans. 'And you know,' says Rostropovich 26 years on, still gummy, excitable and verbally confounding, 'he like this very much. Enormous cold but big, big Russian fireplace, burning whole house, and we sit very cosy. Then he and Peter sing Winterreise (Schubert's vocal evocation of a desolate and lonely winter's journey), and very mysterious feeling; and we all think this where you belong, Ben. Here.'
Received wisdom on Britten has it differently: that he belonged in Aldeburgh, the fishing, festival and retirement town on the Suffolk coast where, like his operatic alter ego Peter Grimes, he and his work were rooted. Britten was supremely territorial, a composer of place. But during the Sixties he did develop a curious (and no doubt to the Foreign Office suspicious) affection for the Soviet Union where he toured repeatedly, made some of his deepest friendships, found a warmth of welcome that was not so readily available in England, and even struck up a rapport with the formidable Soviet Minister of Culture, Mdm Furtseva. But for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the relationship would probably have culminated in a Russian opera commission: a setting of Anna Karenina, which Britten planned to write for the Bolshoi, with Rostropovich conducting and Vishnevskaya in the title role; it had reached libretto stage before the political shutters came down. And the seed of it all was a brief encounter after a Royal Festival Hall concert in 1960 when Rostropovich and Britten first met and the one browbeat the other for a new work. It was the beginning of a remarkable friendship which Rostropovich will relive next month, when he directs his own Festival of Britten and reminds London audiences of his unique authority among the few of Britten's close collaborators still performing and worth hearing.
Today, at 65, Mstislav Rostropovich is not only one of the world's greatest all-round musicians - cellist, conductor, pianist - he is also one of its least inhibited all-round operators. When I went to visit him last month, the phone rang and he leapt into action. 'My dear . . . your highness . . . no . . . yes . . . ah, my dear your highness.' And with a smile of triumph he got out his pencil and added the Aga Khan to the list of people who have been hassled to lend their names, and chequebooks, to the Rostropovich Foundation for humanitarian relief in the former Soviet Union. As Peter Pears once said of him, 'he is a bully, of course . . . and you really can't resist him'.
Britten didn't even try. He was dumbstruck by Rostropovich's accomplishment at that first concert encounter - 'the most extraordinary cello playing I'd ever heard' - and he agreed to a longer meeting the next day at the cheap hotel in Kensington where the rouble-conscious Ministry of Culture had installed Rostropovich. 'I am embarrassed that he see this place,' recalls Rostropovich, 'because I know he great composer; but we meet and he nice, simple man. An Englishman] And he say nothing about lousy hotel, so we make good friends.'
The fruit of that meeting was Britten's Cello Sonata, which Rostropovich premiered at Aldeburgh a year later. Britten went on to write a series of major scores for him and his wife, the leading Bolshoi soprano Vishnevskaya: three unaccompanied cello suites, the Cello Symphony, the Pushkin settings published as The Poet's Echo, and the landmark War Requiem, purpose- written for Vishnevskaya's dramatic capabilities.
The War Requiem illustrates the difficulty of artistic dealings across the iron curtain of the Sixties. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were public figures but they could still work in the West only with the approval of the Ministry of Culture, which was never certain and, in the case of the Requiem, pointedly refused. Vishnevskaya was allowed to travel to Britain for the premiere in Coventry Cathedral in 1963 but not to sing in it. And although Britten had good enough relations with the Soviet authorities to spend a lot of time in the USSR, his friends' movements were still ruled by the power-play of visa control. Especially those of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, who had begun to attract attention as independent spirits, edging towards the stand made by Rostropovich in 1970 in defence of Solzhenitsyn that lost him all exit rights for a year and precipitated his self-exile (in 1974) and loss of citizenship.
Britten himself made no such stand, even though his Russophilia left him politically vulnerable. When Czechoslovakia was invaded, he was asked by the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik to join an international musicians' protest and declined - probably for fear of reprisal against Rostropovich who, by then, was closely identified with Britten's work. But he was certainly sensitive to the situation, even if he placed personal responsibilities above ideological ones. When the invasion took place, Rostropovich was in Britain, playing at the Edinburgh Festival. He found himself the butt of anti-Soviet demonstrations. 'I come to airport and people shout at me 'Go to your home]' I play at Usher Hall and there is big poster, same thing: 'Down with invaders]' I want to say I think so too, but I cannot at this time. So, with Galina I sit in hotel and hide. But Ben, he come and find us and say 'Not sit here. I look after you.' He understand. Not everybody understand.'
He also understood the precarious position of Shostakovich, and asked Rostropovich's advice before he dedicated his church opera The Prodigal Son to the composer. 'He want to do this as friendship,' Rostropovich says. 'But you know story of Prodigal Son - who does wrong and get forgiven. Ben knows how bad Shostakovich treated by government and how he has to apologise in public; and he afraid that Shostakovich thinks opera is about this. Is not.'
Artistically, the closeness between Britten and the Rostropoviches was not hard to understand. Britten not only wrote for his Russian friends, he accompanied them as a pianist; and there are works they played together that Rostropovich says he hasn't had the heart to touch since. 'Schubert's Arpeggio Sonata I never play again, because nobody play Schubert like him. So sensitive, and perfect partner: I cannot repeat.'
Another reason, though, was that Britten's manner apparently fulfilled an Anglophile ideal which Rostropovich had cherished since childhood. 'As small boy I read Dickens - in Russian - I love Dickens. And this makes me practise cello more, because I think I must be good and maybe I can go to play in England and meet people like in Great Expectations. So I come, and like so much. And Ben so much the English man. Nice, simple man. And Aldeburgh, this is sacred for me. First time I come to Aldeburgh Festival I stay in Wentworth Hotel (a paragon of family-run, seafront gentility) and I love this] Absolutely special] Ten thousand times better than the Hilton.'
Britten? A 'nice, simple man'? This is not the composer we know from the biographies: the difficult, thin-skinned, self-lacerating artist in a tweedy jacket who took jokes the wrong way and was torn between the irreconcilable needs of a conventional domestic lifestyle and unconventional sex. Could he really have been so different in the dacha with the Rostropoviches?
'I think so; and I'm sure about my impression. He was enormous warm, fantastic sense of humour. And so tender with Galina, who would run her fingers through his hair - this he loved. Loved] You know, I hear rumour that Ben had first affair with woman and not work out, and this make sex trauma for later life. Maybe is true - though I accept Ben as he was with Peter. It was so natural they were together: like two apostles, Peter and Paul. They love each other, and this love very good.'
Rostropovich hasn't read the searing biography by Humphrey Carpenter whose revelations rocked the music world when it came out last year, and he is unlikely to; his English isn't up to it. But the book does acknowledge that Rostropovich offers a more endearing view of Britten than that of others, and quotes a letter sent after a stay in Aldeburgh:
Dear, dear Ben and Peter] It is quite impossible to express our feelings of sorrow and loneliness which we feel being away from you . . . We never happened to meet people so cordial and warm- hearted, so genuinely gifted, so sincere and frank . . . Yours affectionately, Slava and Galina.
Is that really how it was? 'I tell you, yes. What others tell you, different maybe. But Ben to me was great man of his time. People must know this.'
The 'Festival of Britten' runs from 25 Feb to 21 March at the Barbican and elsewhere. For details ring 071-638 8891.