Rostropovich steps down 'con brio'

For the United States, it is a case of The Russians Are Leaving. Last month, the writer-seer Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned home after 18 years in Vermont. Now Mstislav Rostropovich, champion of artistic freedom and the greatest cellist of his generation, is hanging up his baton as director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

For 17 years 'Slava', as he is universally known, has been the jewel in Washington's cultural crown. This week has been a kind of apotheosis. On Monday he gave a dazzling cello recital at a White House state dinner for the Emperor and Empress of Japan; the following night he conducted the last concert of his last season at the Kennedy Centre, a towering rendition of Verdi's Requiem. Today he formally steps down.

The lives of Rostropovich and Solzhenitsyn are curiously entwined. Indeed Rostropovich owed his own disgrace, exile and loss of citizenship in the 1970s to his protests at the hounding of the writer by the Soviet authorities. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, however, he has never felt any special political calling. Rostropovich may be 67, but as both cello solist and conductor, he is booked solid virtually every day in Europe, the US and Russia until 1997.

Solzhenitsyn is aloof and mystical, a recluse who scarcely ventured from his wooded estate. 'Slava' is an opposite embodiment of Russianness: exuberant, courageous and spontaneous. And never more so than during the shortlived Soviet coup of August 1991. As soon as he heard of the hardliners' takeover he jumped on a plane to Moscow, without a visa, to join the defence of the Russian Parliament building.

At the airport he was stopped by a pimply young border guard who demanded who he was. 'I am Rostropovich,' the great cellist replied imperiously. After disappearing to consult a superior, the nervous guard let him through without further ado, and Rostropovich went straight to join Boris Yeltsin on the barricades.

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