The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich died today at the age of 80. It was only a month ago that there were major celebrations in honor of his 80th birthday. The latest issue of Gramophone is sitting on my chair at home with the cover headline “Rostropovich at 80.” The news was all over the media today. It was the headline story on the 7:00 AM NPR news when my alarm clock went off today. The New York Times published an obituary.
It is hard to overestimate his importance in the music world, as the leading cellist of the late 20th century, as a conductor, as a pianist (accompanying his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya), and above all a champion of new music. Major works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Penderecki and many others are the result of Rostropovich commissions.
One of my life-long memories is a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Carnegie Hall in the late ’70s, with Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, with two of the three vocal soloists for whom the piece was written, Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; along with the baritone John Shirley-Quirk, who by this time was considered the authoritative interpreter of the baritone solos written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. (I later heard Shirley-Quirk sing the part with the Cleveland Orchestra.) But the Carnegie Hall performance was a bit of history, with its direct link to Britten
NPR featured another story on Rostropovich in the evening on “All Things Considered,” an interview with Yo Yo Ma, who is probably Rostropovich’s successor as the most brilliant cellist of a later generation. It was moving to hear Ma’s veneration for the master.