Mstislav Rostropovich: Maestro who wants to change the world

Mstislav Rostropovich has world leaders as friends and is fêted wherever he goes. Now it's time to give something back, he tells Michael Church

Monday 01 November 2004 01:00

Being welcomed by Mstislav Rostropovich into his Maida Vale mansion prompts thoughts that have nothing to do with music. It's a graceful space, but oddly impersonal, more like an art gallery. There is the Japanese lacquer chest, the ancient Greek pots, the huge Twenties oil paintings, the custom-built piano in stainless steel with a transparent perspex lid. Just as you're thinking how much time and thought (and money) must have been spent, you remember that there are others: one in Paris, a palace in St Petersburg, and homes in seven cities around the world.

The cellist, clad in Oriental silks, is smaller and less imposing than the cameras suggest: the greatness he trails - his nickname, "Slava", means "glory" - is nowhere discernible in his bustling, eager manner, and it is he who makes our tea. This is a man who has been at the fulcrum of great historical events, and for whom scores of composers - led by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Britten - have loyally created works; a player whose tone is touched with the divine; a man feted by monarchs; and who's had more than his fair share of danger and despair. And, as I discover, a man whose English remains comically pidgin, despite his interest in literature, and decades at the helm of orchestras in the West.

All artists who give interviews do so because they have something to sell: what Rostropovich wants to sell is an idea. Yesterday, seven young Russians gave a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London: all are beneficiaries of the Rostropovich Foundation. How did it all come about?

"It was my idea, seven years ago," he replies. "A Russian boy from Alma Ata - ambassador ask me to listen - and the boy really good pianist, but no passport, no money, no place to live. And I meet other young musicians - so talented, so dedicated, but no money for study, no chance to make good. That gave me idea for my foundation. Each month I pay for each member, living and teaching money." He also helps them get concert engagements, buy instruments and pay for masterclasses.

"Now one coming from Siberia, six years old. They take him to Moscow, and he perfect play piano, and he compose, and make paintings." Are we talking about another Evgeny Kissin here? "Maybe even more. But very difficult to predict what happen to him. I have known very young and talented boys and girls, but their mothers so excited, immediately pay concerts for them, push them into competitions. Result? Those young people make repertoire not for artistic progress, only for publicity." Yes, we have the syndrome, too.

"Now I have 42 students from all Russia. People send tape to Moscow, and recommendation of professor. Then I and my friends make our decision. And I give all my students protection from my friends who passed away. I give each stipendium [scholarship] a name - an Oistrakh stipendium, a Prokofiev one, a Shostakovich one, a Schnittke stipendium." The list goes on; all are great musicians, and all his friends and heroes. "This way my students are protected, and know the way to go."

He pushes a series of photographs towards me across the table: the Wigmore seven. "Filipp is 13 years old, and so is Olga. Last year her mother wrote to me letter, that her daughter's situation hard. No good teacher in her small town, need study in Vladivostok, but Vladivostok two hours from home with train. Mother says violinist from Moscow hear Olga, who says she is very talented. I become like Sherlock Holmes, I find that violinist, I trust what he says. So I send mother tickets, say bring your daughter to Moscow. Now after one year with very good professor, you hear how she plays." And he beams with satisfaction.

More pictures: "Irina from Irkutsk, and Varvara Ivanova - harp, a miracle, just 15. Last year won great competition in Israel, never before did Russian win prize in that. Her brother Gleb - piano - will play Ginastera. And Bronnikov - trumpet from Rostov - he send to me record, and letter from his teacher, very great technique, very clean and clear. And Aidar Gianullin - Russian accordion - no keyboard, only buttons - another miracle."

Rostropovich was born, with precocious gifts, into a musical dynasty in Baku. His father, Leopold, who he insists was a better pianist and cellist than he, took him (plus his mother and sister, also both musicians) to study in Moscow, where they lived on the breadline and practised together in their one-room home. In the winter of 1942 Leopold's heart failed."A great shock, because I loved him so much. After his death was the most difficult time of my whole life. My mother, sister, and I were without money, the winter was very cold, the water was stopped, and - I don't know how it happened - there was a knock on the door, very strong, it was a muzhik, a peasant, and he said: 'Here, it's cold for you, maybe I give to you some wood.' Then someone else bring a stove. Not because we were musicians; from simple kindness. And I looked up to heaven and said I would repay that kindness to other people, later in my life."

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Then another great story: "On the night train to another place, six of us in compartment, so cold, each of us had just one blanket. I was so depressed I thought it best to sleep, and not wake up. And after few hours I woke up really warm, weighed down with warmth. And people had put their blankets on me. Again, I must repay."

And he hasn't deserted Baku? "No! Baku is very close to me, because it gave me life, and the house where I was born now makes my museum. Each year I give master-classes." Then he launches into a convoluted tale. "You know I celebrated my 75th birthday here at Buckingham palace, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan plays the cello with me, and Empress Masako plays the flute, piano, and harp." Yes, he's always consorted with the mighty: dangerously with top Communists who wanted to get off with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, sweetly with the former US President Bill Clinton, and collusively with the former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, whom - at great danger to himself - he flew to Moscow to save from the armed plotters of 1991. "And the Emperor of Japan asked what present I would like from him. So I phoned Baku's resident orchestra and asked about their instruments. And some very bad, specially woodwind and percussion. Maybe if the Emperor gives instruments to me, I give them to the players in Baku. So he replies that he would like me to make the presentation in Baku. I not ask how many instruments he give. But I come to the hall there, and find two-level stage, and on the upper level is the orchestra, and on the lower level beautiful new chairs, and on each chair, flowers and an instrument - one for each member of the orchestra." His eyes grow round with remembered wonder. When the orchestra played with its new instruments, "the difference in sound was unbelievable".

Rostropovich no longer needs to prove his credentials. His records are in the shops, and his deeds are in the history books: his defence of Shostakovich and other modernist composers against the Stalinists; his public support for the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which caused the Soviets to cast him into exile; his exultant cello solo in Berlin as the Wall came down. When Shostakovich was dying, Rostropovich roped in a whole orchestra to help him lay the bricks for a new wing in the clinic where the composer was being treated: after telling me about the work of his musical foundation, he suddenly goes off on a different tack. He wants me to know that he has another foundation. "Next month, for example, I will finish vaccination for children in Petersburg [for Hepatitis B]. Two hundred and sixty thousand children, plus 4,000 orphans! And after that there will be great dinner, and I will be completely drunk - my friends must carry me home. And I have finished vaccination in Nizhny-Novgorod and Voronezh - I have vaccinated over one million children. By the end of 2005 I will have done two million."

It begins to sound crazy, but it still makes sense because this man has the will, the energy, and the money, and also has his Orthodox faith to sustain him. When I ask where he spends most of his time, those 10 palaces sound a bit superfluous: "In the aeroplane. Tonight my concert here in London, tomorrow in Milan, then straight on to Vilnius."

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