Slava: A gala tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich

The London Cello Society

Cadogan Hall, 3 December 2008 4 stars

Rostropovich

Although, in spite of their promotional material, Rostropovich was neither seen on film or heard on CD in Dvorák's Cello Concerto and in Rostropovich's Humoreske, The London Cello Society presented a deeply moving two-part tribute to the late Mstislav Rostropovich, their former honorary patron.

First and foremost a great cellist but also a pianist, conductor and dedicatee of some 200 compositions, Rostropovich – or Slava, as he was known affectionately to many – also made a deep impact on countless lives through his humanitarian activities which peaked in his Rostropovich–Vishnevskaya Foundation for the health and future of children.

The first part of the tribute took place in the afternoon and it consisted of several talks – individual and roundtable – and of an excellent documentary film. This afternoon session opened and closed with a few minutes of music. I understand the logic of starting with the first movement (Aria) of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras for eight cellos and soprano – and it was fitting to have young cellists, led by one time Rostropovich student Karine Georgian, to participate – but it was odd to see famous soprano Elena Prokina bending down to her music stand to read her solo part. At no point did Prokina look from behind her reading glasses at the audience. On the other hand, the concluding music of the afternoon was Rostropovich's mesmerising filmed performance – with the cameras mainly focusing on his left hand fingers – of Popper's Elfentanz. Even in a bravura piece and on film, Rostropovich's power of communication was not lacking. Elisabeth Wilson talked about defining events in Slava's life and work and then presented her beautifully produced and informative (and, indeed, fascinating) documentary film which she made with Ernaldo Data for the 2007 Manchester Cello Festival. Thanks to young Mischa Maisky's foresight – which prompted him to record some of Rostropovich's lessons – we watched Rostropovich teach a young Karine Georgian and a young Natalia Gutman. One may or may not agree with Rostropovich's sensual approach to cello playing and cello teaching, but – without doubt – he left his mark on his best pupils. This was evident later in the evening.

The roundtable discussion, chaired by Moray Welsh, was an excellent idea but most of the speakers were difficult to hear. This was probably partly due to the microphones – although those living in the UK, Lillian Hochhauser and Welsh, were clearer than the others – but disturbed audibility notwithstanding, it was exciting to see and hear Rostropovich's daughter Elena and outstanding ex-Rostropovich students Karine Georgian, Natalia Gutman, Mischa Maisky and Ivan Monighetti.

The evening concert opened with Prokofiev's Overture on Jewish Themes, Op.34. Bearing in mind that the composer later specially composed for Rostropovich (the sonata for cello and piano, and the Sinfonia Concertante), this was an odd choice. However, it allowed a group of players from the London Symphony Orchestra – with which Rostropovich had close association – to participate. Ironically, the most impressive player – clarinettist Timothy Lines, sounding like a born klezmer player – was omitted from the biographical notes.

RostropovichFor me Elena Prokina's heart-felt performances of Russian songs (by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov) were marred by intonation problems. No such (or any other) problems existed in the magnificent performance of Britten's Sonata in C Op. 65 by Natalia Gutman (and Ian Brown), in the Shostakovich Sonata in D minor Op. 40 (played superbly by Mischa Maisky and Lily Maisky) and in the short but significant ‘Per Slava' for solo cello by Penderecki played by Ivan Monighetti.

The revelation of the evening was Lily Maisky at the piano in the Shostakovich Sonata. Even with score in my hand, I found no fault in this 21-year old lady's playing. Her musicality – and evident knowledge – provided an equal partnership to his father's impressive interpretation of Shostakovich's score.

The final item put a smile on everybody's face. It was some nineteenth-century Austrian waltz, or so it sounded, played by the four Russian Rostropovich cellists (Georgian, Maisky, Gutman and Monighetti) as a surprise item. We demanded an encore and we had, as Maisky said, ‘take two' of the same piece. It was a happy ending which Rostropovich would have appreciated.

During the tribute (and in the programme notes) it was stated several times how very keen Rostropovich was to support children, the motivation behind the founding of his Foundation (see www.rostropovich.org).

From personal experience I can add that Rostropovich indeed was supportive, even to complete strangers. Some ten years ago I organised a study trip to St Petersburg and I was looking for a music school which would be willing to do joint projects with my group. For months I searched in vain. Then our group, including young children, attended a Rostropovich concert at the Barbican. After the concert we managed to get backstage, to see Rostropovich and to tell him about our search for a willing Russian music school in St Petersburg. Rostropovich smiled at the young children in our group and instructed an aid to sort out our problem immediately. This is how we came to spend a very happy day in the Rostropovich music school in St Petersburg.

By Agnes Kory