By John Helmer in Moscow
There have been two deconstructionists and reconstructivists of the music of J.S. Bach in our time. Both are dead now — Glenn Gould, aged 50, died in 1982; and Mstislav Rostropovich, aged 80, died this week. The music of one of them will live forever.
It was forty-four years ago, I remember, on a dry, wintry Saturday afternoon in January of 1963, when Rostropovich played Bach’s six unaccompanied cello suites in Tokyo. The concert was in the then brand-new, ultra-modern concert hall in Ueno Park, which was sold out for the solo recital. To get in for a back seat, I spent all of my scarce student’s money, and had to do without dinner that evening to hear the music. After watching the ungainly bulk of the man, alone on the vast stage, wrestle his instrument into life, and release the music like a slow detonation from one end of the music-hall to the other, I felt a charge; as you can see, I remember it to this day. For years afterwards, there was no other performer for me of the Bach cello suites – not Casals, nor Fournier, nor Piatigorsky, nor Rose, nor the next generation of Du Pre and Ma. To a young man’s ear, Rostropovich’s interpretation replaced the romantic, rhapsodic lilt, exposing the revolutionary structures of sound that had been missed in Bach’s own time. For all I knew then, Rostropovich’s performance was the first not to miss it.
That concert came just six years after Rostropovich claims, in a recent memoir, that he first met Casals, in Paris in 1957, and when Casals played him excerpts of Suite No. 1. Rostropovich’s recollection is telling: “he was only a couple of feet away from me–not a bit nervous about playing for me.” Why the maestro should feel nervous playing for his junior is a question that could only have occurred to Rostropovich, but not then – much later.
It was in the spring of 1957 that Rostropovich, then 30, had his chance to hear Gould, who played a series of solo piano concerts in Moscow and Leningrad, starting at the Moscow Conservatory on May 8. Rostropovich was a professor of cello at the Conservatory at the time. Russia’s professional musicians had already heard of Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; some had listened to the recording. That was, still is, the performance that has changed all interpretations of Bach.
That first Moscow concert has also become a legend in the community of Russian classical music audiences and performers. No pianist of stature from North America had come to play in the Soviet Union before. Gould and his manager were initially warned off their proposed trip in 1956 by Canadian government officials; it was the time of the Hungarian uprising. Checking first with the US State Department, but risking his concert reputation and recording sales market in the US, Gould, then 24, decided to take the risk.
The programme of Gould’s first Moscow concert was all Bach, an unheard of thing at the time, when conventional Soviet musicology regarded Bach as excessively religious, unmelodic, boring, or formalistic of a character that offended academic Soviet norms. A film documentary of Gould’s trip to Russia was produced in 2001, and records what happened. In the first half of the first concert, half the chairs in the Conservatory’s great hall were empty. But the audience was so overwhelmed by what they heard, that when the entr’acte came, they raced for the telephones. The intermission was extended to twice its usual length, so that those present could call those absent, and summon them at once. By the time Gould resumed playing, the hall was overflowing.
As many musicians who could, came to that concert. But not Rostropovich.
Indeed, he stayed away from Gould’s entire Russian series. He doesn’t explain why in the documentary film; he covers up his absence by brief remarks intended to confer upon Gould’s now departed head, Rostropovich’s personal blessing. In brief snatches, Rostropovich opines after 44 years, that “Russia was the best country to go to because there they have a spontaneous reaction to genius.” Rostropovich admits: “I remember I didn’t go to the first concert”; he doesn’t say that he went to none of the series. It was, he intimates, the lesser musicians and performers, who attended, and were impressed.
Not to lose the opportunity of mounting his own pedestal, he confides to an interviewer in 2001: “I will tell you something noone knows, because it was from my intimate conversation with Sviatoslav Richter.” And what gem of intimacy is revealed? That Rostropovich and Richter were not impressed by Gould’s talent, nor by his understanding of music. According to Rostropovich’s recollection, Richter had told him: “You know, I could play Bach as well as Gould. But do you know why I don’t play [Bach] as well as [Gould]? Because I would have to work so hard to play like him.” Number-2 must try harder, as rental car advertisements claim.
In fact, according to the documentary soundtrack, Richter came to one of Gould’s concerts; applauded and cheered long after others in the audience; and then came backstage to present his compliments and congratulations. Gould returned them, speaking of his captivation at a Richter concert he attended. The ungenerous Rostropovich was fabricating what Richter had said, and changing his meaning to suit Rostropovich’s interpretation — not of the music, but of himself.
And that’s the key to the musician who has just died. For Rostropovich the cellist died a long time ago. Rostropovich the performer lived on when the music had stopped. Among the recollections of the departed, few of the players of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington are likely to speak well of him. For it was during his time as the symphony’s musical director, 1977-1994, that the players went on strike against Rostropovich, revealing that he not only tyrannized personally over them and their union, but opposed their pay increases while helping himself. Musicians in many places recall Rostropovich’s vindictiveness and meanness towards others in his trade.
Much has been reported of the falling-out between Rostropovich and the Soviet authorities, who forced him into exile. But nothing is remembered of details of Rostropovich’s personal income maximizing schemes, and tax avoidance while he was in the US and a US citizen. Although it was Mikhail Gorbachev who reinstated Rostropovich’s citizenship and passport in 1990, Rostropovich did not defend Gorbachev. Instead, he threw his celebrity behind Boris Yeltsin. Not once during the Yeltsin period did Rostropovich use the pedestal which he had created for himself to defend against the cultural destruction wreaked on Russia by Yeltsin and his associates. When lack of state funds threatened Radio Orfei, the classical music radio station with the largest audience in the world, Rostropovich did nothing to save it from extinction. Instead, he promoted a commercial syndicate for a pop music frequency..
When a mean little man with a big ego dies, the ego may be all that can be eulogized. As Rostropovich had treated Gould, so he treated anyone he considered talented enough to threaten his own celebrity. By 2000, when Yeltsin stepped down, Rostropovich had become a political groupie of the Kremlin, and of the new oligarchs; even some of them have expressed surprise at the appearance fees Rostropovich charged them.
The noise and phsyical damage he willfully inflicted on others triggered a lawsuit from his St. Petersburg neighbours. His Bach cello suites were no longer listened to on Russian radio, because classical music had gone entirely. The man who was one of the most selfish and vindictive bullies of modern musical performance had turned his hand to holding those of politicians, and the Spanish Queen’s. The cello virtuoso had become a string-puller.
The consummate artist that Rostropovich was to the end was an upstage artist.