- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2008

American music lovers who know Mstislav Rostropovich only from his years in the West as a cellist and conductor following his forced departure from the Soviet Union in 1974 will rejoice to have Elizabeth Wilson’s gold mine of insights into the first 47 years of this larger-than-life musician, teacher and humanitarian. Ms. Wilson, a British cellist and biographer of both Dmitri Shostakovich and Jacqueline du Pre, was a member of Mr. Rostropovich’s famous Class 19 at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1960s. She knows her music, she extensively interviewed Mr. Rostropovich himself and many of his former students and reviewed the surviving tapes of Mr. Rostropovich’s lessons and she writes well. This is an extraordinary book about the musical and cultural environment in the Soviet Union that produced Mr. Rostropovich, and his influence on his fellow performers and composers.

Mr. Rostropovich’s father and uncle were both renowned cellists and rivals, while his mother was a gifted pianist. Ms. Wilson describes the vicissitudes of family life and education during World War II when the Rostropoviches lived in a communal flat in the hinterlands, sharing a kitchen with eight other families. At 12, Slava broke his right wrist in two places, and for six months thereafter he could not rotate it, which may help account for his unusual bow position.

Three years later Slava’s father died, and the young cellist became the principal breadwinner for the family, earning money by teaching and playing. (He would tell students that he had once played a concert for a bucket of potatoes.) In 1943 he went to Moscow to study at the conservatory where his uncle was the principal cello teacher. Slava found his uncle’s methods to be uncongenial and the cello repertoire boring, but after a difficult start Slava established a regimen under which he worked through the night, training himself to need only three or four hours of sleep per 24-hour day. He then skipped from the second to the fifth year, a testimony “not only to the exceptional artistic maturity and high standard of the seventeen-year-old cellist,” the author comments, but to his hard work and phenomenal powers of concentration.

At age 18 Rostropovich won the first prize in a prestigious competition that launched his performing career, during which, as a fellow cellist told the author, Slava worked continuously to develop a more refined and varied sound. Early on, he determined to expand both the audience for the cello and the cello repertoire, which entailed traveling to play in the remote reaches of the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain countries, starting cello ensembles and orchestras, and commissioning and introducing quantities of new music by Soviet composers. (His performance, by memory, of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto four days after obtaining the score is legendary but not unique for him — the book is replete with examples of other almost incredible feats of memory.)

Slava viewed teaching as important as performance, and it is the author’s intimate knowledge of Slava’s teaching techniques that gives this book its greatest value. The key to his student-professor relationship was “to combine an informal personal approach with relentlessly high demands.” Students had to be prepared for anything, including Slava’s frequent absences on tours, following which Slava would remember exactly where each student should be in which piece. Or he might, instead of hearing the student play the cello concerto he had prepared, ask him to play the second oboe part (students soon learned they were expected to memorize the entire score, not just their part). Or he might ask students to transpose a piece into a different key, improvise a passage, play scales in various ways, or accompany each other on the piano. Cellists who were not skilled pianists quickly had to get up to speed.

The act of preparation, Slava would tell his students, was sometimes as important as the actual performance. As one future Tchaikovsky prize winner reported, when it came her turn to play the Prelude of Bach’s sixth suite in class, “He made me go out of the door and walk in about seven times, and was always unsatisfied.” Later, she philosophized that the lesson involved not just “extending the right image to the audience, but of carrying with you the inner sensation that inhabits the music you are to perform on stage.”

Ms. Wilson’s book also details Mr. Rostropovich’s relationships with contemporary Russian composers and his championing of their music, which won him a Lenin Prize in 1964, as well as his fall from grace with the Soviet authorities when he invited the dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn to live in his dacha. Her thorough research makes this biography an encyclopedia of an era.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.