By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When Cello Maestro Rostropovitch Held An Indian-international Audience Spellbound

The only globally legendary Western musician other than Yehudi Menuhin and Zubin Mehta ever to visit India is the Russian cello maestro Mstislav Rostropovitch.  It was an unexpected and unforgettable windfall to hear him perform in New Delhi in 1988 -- within a few months after I had written a substantial essay on the global guitar legend AndrĂ©s Segovia in THE HINDU, expressing regrets that we could (and would) never hear his live music in the city.  

Glossary & annotations
(for readers across the world)

Stradivarius  --  Product of 17th/18th-century Italian family Stradivari, famous as makers of the world's finest violins, violas and cellos.  A Stradivarius among string instruments is like a Rolls Royce among cars.

Azad Bhavan  --  Heritage building in New Delhi with lovely lawns, housing the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Kamani auditorium  --  Spacious (600+), modern concert hall in New Delhi.

Lalgudi Jayaraman  --  One of the greatest violinists in Carnatic music.

Ravi Shankar  --  Internationally known sitarist  (the sitar is one of the twin prime string instruments in Hindustani music, the other one being the sarod). 

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --  Classical music of South/North India.

New Delhi

23 December 1988

Soul-stirring cello music

"The cello is my voice.  It is an extension of my vocal chord.  Through the cello I sing.  What is in my heart, what is in my head, it comes through my  hand, through my fingers, and finds expression in the cello's strings."

So spoke Mstislav Rostropovitch, the legendary Russian musician who now lives in Washington and divides his time equally between his activities as Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra and a globe-trotting cello virtuoso.  He was addressing a press conference organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the United States Information Service and the Delhi Music Society in Azad Bhavan last Monday afternoon.
The statement soon became a memorable one because it was followed that evening by a soul-stirring demonstration of the musician's total integration with his instrument, in the fully-packed Kamani auditorium.

Two sonatas for cello and piano, by Brahms and Shostokovitch, with the young London-based Indian Pali Pavri playing the piano, were rendered beautifully.  But  it was in the Bach Suite No. 3 for unaccompanied cello that the maestro's magic powers were in full display.  Deeply absorbed in a spiritual communion with his richly-toned 18th-century Stradivarius, Rostropovitch literally played on the heart-strings of the spellbound Indian-international audience.

PostScript, 2016

Not unique, but universal phenomenon

It gives me great pleasure to revive my impressions of the magic touch of Rostropovitch with the following and related recordings on YouTube

                             Mstislav Rostropovich - Bach - Cello Suite No. 3
However, taking a fresh look now at this old context and my own review, I wonder whether I would have highlighted the Russian cellomaster's 'spiritual communion with his Stradivarius'  -- as if it was a unique phenomenon --  if I hadn't heard him declare passionately that "The cello is my voice . . .  etc."  in the press conference held a few hours before his performance.   

Looking at that quotation now, I can see quite clearly that more or less the same thing could have been truthfully said by any legendary instrumentalist anywhere in the world  --  like, let us say,  Yehudi Menuhin or Lalgudi Jayaraman about their violins, Ravi Shankar or Segovia about their sitar or guitar :  or even by von Karajan or Zubin Mehta, if you visualize a whole orchestra as the conductor's instrument!

The mystic rapport which invariably exists between a true grandmaster of instrumental music and his beloved instrument is a universal phenomenon which needs to be viewed in a far wider perspective than that of a concert review, or even a career assessment.  We never think of it or even notice it while we are actually being moved by a great performance, unless our attention is drawn to it in a specific manner, as happened on this unusual occasion.