A CLASS APART
THE LEGACY OF MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH
Forty three years ago Moray Welsh joined Mstislav Rostropovich's class at the Moscow Conservatoire.
Here he remembers those years of intense music making and political intrigue.
It was early evening on the ninth of September 1969, as the SS Ulanova steamed slowly to her berthing position in the Leningrad docks. Manoeuvring slowly through a vast complex of channels lined with some of the USSR's prized fighting ships, the Ulanova seemed cowed by the sentinel presence of this sinister armoury. As the last rays of sun dipped below the skyline, black chimney stacks trailed lazy columns of smoke into the descending mantle of chill evening air.
I gazed across a cityscape of warehouses, loading wharfs, and Napoleonic sea-defence ramparts, many adorned with vast portraits of Lenin. Everywhere you looked were huge, strategically placed political slogans. “Praise to our Socialist Motherland”, “Praise to the Glory of Work”, “Praise to the Great October Revolution”, leaving me in no doubt that I had arrived in Soviet Russia. The whole scene looked strangely theatrical, like an enormous stage set into which a brigade of young communists might rush, singing a revolutionary song and waving their red flags.
The British Council used to send its Russia-bound students by boat, which, apart from being an enjoyable way to get there, ( if somewhat basic, as far as creature comforts were concerned), also served to underline just how far from home we were going to be for a year. The five day trip from London ( stopping off en route in Helsinki) was prelude to an overnight train to Moscow, and, as the train inched out, the stirring strains of the Internationale conjured up a host of images of Russian trains, trains crossing great swathes of tundra and steppe, trains transporting political prisoners, trains separating lovers..........
So began my two-year domicile in Russia as a student of Mstislav Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatoire. Some of the other British students in the group were to travel to quite far-flung corners of the Soviet Union to pursue different academic studies. I, however, was the only musician in the group, and Moscow - thank God - was my destination. Those who travelled further afield frequently came back with stories of barely habitable living quarters, and almost insurmountable problems encountered in the pursuit of their studies.
Puting my foot on Russian soil was also, in a sense, the end of one journey, which had started a year and a half before, when Benjamin Britten had introduced me to Rostropovich. In 1967, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, I had met and played for Britten ( who partnered me at the piano in his Cello Sonata). Then I had played for Rostropovich at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival, and he had invited me to come to Moscow to study with him at the Moscow Conservatoire. I had to pinch myself to realise that this was “for real”: it was all so much like a fairy tale that had come true. That it happened without major hiccups was all the more surprising, since at that time there were enormous obstacles to be overcome by anyone trying to get through the barrage of red tape to study in Russia, particularly at one of the country's great artistic institutions.
Of course this was the beginning of another, much bigger journey, having come to study the cello alongside a group of highly gifted Russian students. The names of Natalia Gutman, Mischa Maisky, David Geringas, Karine Georgian and Ivan Monighetti, amongst others, are now internationally known, and for two years I was privileged to work alongside them in Rostropovich's class, of which Jacqueline du Pré had also been a member three years before.
After the night train journey from Leningrad, my arrival early the next morning at the hostel for the Conservatoire students was inauspicious - nobody seemed to be expecting me. Nor, without some vital bit of paper, which I seemed not to have, was the charmless lady commandant prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt. She was a “don't-mess-with-me” peroxide blonde, built like a battleship - no doubt a prerequisite for the job. Though I had just travelled over two thousand miles by sea and land, that I was grappling with a cello, three suitcases, and a feeble command of Russian, she was indisposed to admit me, especially at half past six in the morning.
I was later to discover that to survive in cold-war Russia, you had to learn a variety of rather basic techniques, such as bribery, emotional blackmail, or a combination of both, to get what you wanted, but as yet I was unschooled in these arts. That was to come.
Days later I was still battling with officialdom to wrest the appropriate documents from the relevant offices - the foreign student department at the Conservatoire, and the monolithic Ministry of Culture. As I walked through its doors I wondered just how many times the “greats” of Russian music, Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Richter, Oistrakh and many others, may have crossed these portals to do battle with the Minister, a role fulfilled at that time by Ekaterina Furtseva, one-time mistress, so it was said, of Kruschev. The very name of Furtseva, a formidable upholder of the faith, was enough to cause strong men to blanch.
To find myself in Brezhnev's cold-war Russia after three halcyon years at York University, was a character-building experience. The easygoing life-style to which students at a radical 60's British University had become accustomed was light-years from the gritty vibrancy of life in the Soviet Union. But the enforced asceticism which we all had to endure was the background to a period of intense cultural richness.
With typical Orwellian confusion, well before the paperwork had been stamped and sealed, I had already had my first encounter with my mentor, Mstislav Leopoldovich (“Slava” to his friends). While the officials were still telling me that I was not yet a fully accredited student and could not therefore enter the hallowed walls of the Conservatoire, I was ensconced with the maestro in his flat off Gorky Street.
To be face to face at last with the lion in his own den, so to speak, was quite a different scenario from the occasions when I had met him in Britain, when the prospect of studying with him in Moscow had seemed like an impossible dream. For a lesson that he had given me during the 1968 Edinburgh Festival, to overcome my embarrassment about how much I should pay him, he had demanded “One penny!” ( and he also demanded that I actually give him the penny! ) Somehow on his own territory Rostropovich seemed even more “Russian”, more extrovert, effusively hugging and kissing his colleagues wherever he met them. So, whatever the difficulties, I felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria.
I had actually made contact with Rostropovich on the day after I arrived - he happened to be taking a class in the Conservatoire, so, shyly I slipped in and introduced myself, feeling overawed to see and hear students whose reputations had already travelled abroad, and some of whom had already won international competitions. Very soon I had been given a nickname by the maestro; as “Moray” was impossibly foreign for the Russians, I became Marusya, the name, as I later learned, of Shostakovich's sister. The irony of my sex change was lost on me at the time, but the name stuck, and Marusya I remained till the day I left two years later.
At this meeting my first lessons were arranged in the privacy of Rostropovich's dacha at Zhukovka outside Moscow, and in his Moscow flat. I was glad to be spared a public exhibition quite so soon after my arrival. There was a gladiatorial atmosphere in the class, for which I was, as yet, musically and psychologically unprepared. At the dacha I recognised the (long-since-empty) fish tanks which members of the ECO had lugged all the way to Moscow at Rostropovich's bidding on one of their tours, complete with water and fish! All Rostropovich's houses were testimony to his voracious appetite for collecting objects from his travels abroad. His huge art collection, which was spread across several continents and which grew to enormous proportions after he finally left Russia, was sold two years ago, through Sothebys, to the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, for an undisclosed multi-million pound sum.
The atmosphere in the Conservatoire at that time was electrifying. Since its foundation by Nikolai Rubinstein 1866 it had never boasted such a galaxy of stars on the teaching staff. In the 1960's Professorships were held by Neuhaus ( teacher of Richter and Radu Lupu), Oborin, Oistrakh, Kogan, Yankalevich and Rostropovich, not to mention a whole galaxy of other teachers, less prominent as international performers, but famous pedagogues. And amongst the students were a whole generation of stars in the making, whose names are now a byword on the international musical scene.
The traditional method of teaching is in “classes” where the lessons can be listened to by the other students of the teacher, or by anyone else who is interested. As might be expected with a teacher with the temperament of Rostropovich, his classes were a magnet, drawing dozens of listeners, both students and professors, who often filled the room to bursting point. Word would go round that, for example Natalia Gutman and Oleg Kagan were to play the Brahms Double for a lesson, and there wouldn't be an inch of floor space left.
The key to Rostropovich's style of teaching was spontaneity. From the moment that the telephone might ring at 7.30am with a message that there would be a class that day at 9am, we were all on tenterhooks. Students would be chosen to play more or less at random, so there was always the uncomfortable feeling that, while listening to someone else having a lesson, it might be your turn next. The classes could last all day, or carry on late into the evening, or suddenly be cancelled after we had all waited for hours. Nothing could be taken for granted.
All the students were allocated two lessons a week, and Rostropovich's assistant Stefan Kalianov usually undertook preparatory work on new repertoire. He was a curiosity. Though an experienced pedagogue (he had published a book on Cello Technique ) it was never clear on what his relationship with Rostropovich was based. Exactly how he came to occupy his position next to the doyen of all cellists, was open to speculation. What was evident, and was later confirmed to me by Rostropovich, was that he played his role in the curious art of political “minding”, to which everyone was subject, to a greater or lesser degree. Ivan Monighetti, who became my closest friend amongst the students, described him as our “grey cardinal”. No doubt Rostropovich and Kalianov had a kind of symbiotic relationship, where both could be of use to each other at the appropriate moment, but when, years later, I showed Slava photographs which included Stefan Kalianov, he looked at them with a grimace, and was keen to pass them over swiftly.
Stefan Kalianov probably never realised the extent to which Slava could make fun of him in subtle ways. There was a story told of how he would meticulously annotate his copies of the music with Slava's words. So when Slava heard a student underplay a passage, he would cry “ More! More!” The next time Kalianov gave a lesson to another student on the same piece, at the same place in the music he would shout “More! More!” Then when this student went to play to Rostropovich, Slava would shout “Less! Less!” Dutifully Kalianov would rub out his previous marks, take out his pencil, and write “Less! Less!” on the music! At the same time his copies were fascinating transcriptions of Slava's preferred fingerings and bowings, which we all had to learn as a matter of course. This meant that by the time we arrived in a lesson with Slava, time was not wasted on the more fundamental aspects of our preparation, allowing him to focus on the musical and interpretive approach to the music.
The nuances of relationships in Soviet times were often far more complex than outsiders could understand. Years later I spoke to Slava about his relationship with the Minister Furtseva, who had obstructed him so many times. He said “You know, in fact I can say that, in spite of everything, I admired Furtseva. I will never forget how once, at a very difficult time for me [at the time Rostropovich was sheltering Solzhenitsyn in his dacha outside Moscow, while he was researching and writing August 1914 ], I was summoned to the Ministry of Culture to see her. She looked at me and the tears rolled down her face. She said to me “What are you doing? Do you understand what you are doing?' and she cried openly. When I go to Novodevich Cemetary in Moscow to visit my friends [ where Shostakovich, and now Rostropovich himself are buried], I always stop at her grave.”
Immersing oneself in the heady musical atmosphere of the Conservatoire, it was all too easy to forget that one was living in a police state, which was basically ideologically at war with the West, but every now and then there would be a reminder. Not long after I arrived I found myself being propositioned by an English-speaking Russian girl, who had managed to get into our hostel ( though ineptly, as I later heard ), in spite of the fact that she didn't live there. She was not a student at the Consevatoire either, just an extremely unskilled student apparatchik of the KGB. These approaches were common and really something of a joke, but it was much less of a joke when Mischa Maisky was arrested for bartering in foreign currency, leading to eighteen months hard labour in a camp in Gorky.
Finding myself in a class of cellists who had been pupils of Rostropovich for several years,( and before that in the Soviet specialist music schools), was sometimes daunting. I can never forget my first impressions - hearing one extraordinary cellist after another. The level, in terms of the character and quality of sound, not to mention technique, was staggering. But Rostropovich could be volatile, and even for the Russian students there was a palpable nervous tension in the atmosphere, such was the intensity of the contact with him. I was not alone in suffering from regular attacks of nerves in these situations. Nothing escaped him, so you had to be prepared to within an inch of your life. Just sitting down to play for him had the effect of making you summon every last ounce of energy and commitment. Praise was never given lightly, so that when it came, it really felt as though one had made a big step forward.
After my first lesson I was set an impossible task ( a favourite “test” for new students)of learning a huge amount of music in a very short time, just, I imagine, to see how I coped with the task. A few tense days and sleepless nights followed while I drove myself at fever pitch to absorb all this new music. Luckily, at the lest minute the appointed lesson was postponed, giving me a few more days' grace. Being used to private lessons before I went to Russia, having to run the gauntlet of public lessons took some getting used to. But this was probably the best training one could have for a very public profession. I remember thinking that I would probably never again have to face such a challenging audience.
In one lesson, a very talented Armenian student ( who possessed a rather over-inflated ego ) played the ferociously virtuosic Locatelli Sonata. This demands a bowing technique which is notoriously difficult, even for some Maestri. We all sat in bowed silence as Slava slowly pulled the performance apart, likening it to an extravagantly beautiful crocodile-skin suitcase, with nothing inside. A photograph of the lesson records the horror-struck faces of the other students and listeners. There, but for the grace of God………….
Occasionally talented young cellists from other parts of the Soviet Union would come to audition for Rostropovich. More often than not they were given a gruelling audition. On one occasion after the student had played a very difficult study, I remember Rostropovich asking for the study in a completely different key. And rarely, if ever, were they admitted to the class. The rigour of these occasions was an eye-opener. I recall thinking that I had been extremely lucky not to be subjected to the same grilling. But having had the blessing of Britten, such was the respect in which he was held, both by Rostropovich and Russian musicians in general, I felt protected by a kind of talisman during my Moscow Years.
There was a unique blend of intense work and comedy in those classes. Rostropovich's approach to teaching, which he did without the help of a cello, was to constantly challenge the imagination of the student, and to illuminate the music, in a particularly Russian way, by putting it into a wider context. He would do this by demonstrating at the piano, (sometimes at the same time as the class pianist was playing another piano!) illustrating his point with other pieces of music, or by telling anecdotes to illustrate the character of the music that he particularly wanted. Sometimes he would push the student to his limits and beyond, by making impossible demands, and on other occasions he would defuse the tension with ridiculous jokes or clowning. The general level of noise and laughter in Class No 19 must have seemed at times to an outsider like bedlam.
It was just about as far from the idea of any “Soviet” system of training that anyone could imagine. Rostropovich himself was part of a tradition that went back much further, to the time of the foundation of music colleges in Russia, and he occupies a position in a direct cellistic dynasty coming from Carl Davidov, the first great Professor of cello in St Petersburg. He himself said to me that if he taught me anything of value it came from Davidov!
All of us who worked at close quarters with Rostropovich know what an extraordinary genius he was, and to have had the privilege to study with him in Moscow was an unforgettable experience. Just as Davidov had done before him, Rostropovich added another dimension to cello playing, and his influence on his students was very far reaching, all of us sharing the feeling that we were part of a very exclusive club.
Daily life in Moscow at that time presented a kaleidoscope of challenges, from the difficulties involved in shopping for basic food, to the clandestine operations needed for permission to travel. Luckily, the British students were given a £5 monthly allowance to spend in the British Embassy shop, which was a lifeline, though the items one bought were usually simply “comfort” rations to dispel the monotony of the hostel food.
The Russian students could usually supply the solutions to practical problems, and one quickly learnt how to bypass the red tape that surrounded so many things. One exception was laundry. I held out for about a month without managing to find anywhere to get my clothes washed. Finally after considerable detective work, I was overjoyed to discover a “depot” laundering sheets. They accepted my clothes, but only after I had to laboriously stitch a serial numbered tape on them , in spite of already having my own Cash’s name tape on to every item. When I finally collected the carefully wrapped brown paper parcels, I discovered that everything, including my socks, had been starched like boards. My basic Russian hadn’t extended to issuing instructions for NO STARCH ! Most Russians found a “granny” to do it for them. I was the odd-ball English student who, in the end, did it myself, by hand.
Often the best solution was to “disappear” anonymously into the crowd. Places like Peredelkino, the village where many Russian writers owned dachas, and where Pasternak is buried, were out-of-bounds to foreign students unless you had applied for a travel permit some days before. But we just used to get on a train and hope that nobody would identify us. Getting out of Moscow and the incessant noise of people practising all the time was essential.
In October 1970 I found myself a bit-player in a cold-war drama. Events surrounding Solzhenitsyn had escalated following the news that he had been awarded the Nobel prize. We all knew that Slava had been sheltering him, and at the end of the month ( October 31st ) he wrote an open letter to the Soviet and western press criticising their treatment of the writer in a repetion of Pasternak's humiliation ,“……..we regard the awarding of the prize as a dirty political game.” Two days before that, however, we had a class with Slava, and I had a lesson on the Brahms F major Sonata. That night Slava was also conducting a performance of Prokofiev's “War and Peace” at the Bolshoi Theatre. It was typical of this dynamo of a man that even on the day of a performance of such an epic work, he should still have the energy to teach for several hours.
When the class finished there was the usual noisy hubbub as the throng of students and listeners slowly dispersed. Then something happened which was completely unexpected, and, at the same time, something which I had dreaded might happen. Slava beckoned me over and, with the perfect cover of all the surrounding noise, told me that he wanted me to take a message to the British Embassy concerning Solzhenitsyn. We knew less in Moscow about what was happening with the progress of negotiations surrounding the Nobel prize, than was generally known in Moscow. But I was aware that this was an extremely important request.
As I gathered my thoughts, I found the responsibility of this troubling. For me, there were serious issues involved, and I knew that I had to be extremely careful. I even considered that this could have been some sort of test that Slava was setting me. In the current political climate I could be putting myself and my continuing studies in jeopardy: the Solzhenitsyn affair was one of the most sensitive at that time, because it attracted so much Western publicity. Certainly the consequences of discovery would have been catastrophic for me. On the other hand the consequences of not carrying out the request could have impinged on the larger canvas of Solzhenitsyn's life. I mulled the whole thing over, and discussed it with a friend, who actually advised me not to become involved, but I felt my responsibility to Slava was paramount and that I should carry out the request.
The Foreign Office had briefed us well before going to Russia, to cover all such eventualities, so I was aware of the procedure that was necessary. I had a good contact with the then ambassador Sir Duncan Wilson, whose daughter Liza was also a student of Slava, but at that moment he was in England. I also knew that Slava had been in England from the 10th to the 25th October, so had he been able, he would have himself spoken to Sir Duncan there. I decided to go to the embassy and make contact with the first secretary.
The routine was simple : if you had a sensitive message you wrote down on a piece of paper that you needed to talk. We left the Embassy and took a walk along Naberezhnaya Morisa Toreza, on the other side of the river Moskva, directly opposite the Kremlin. In those days the embassies were known to be bugged so precautions were routine. Lady Wilson, HE's wife, used to talk to a particular wall - “ the wailing wall” -to complain about the things that had broken down in the Embassy - it was a much quicker way to get the repair men to show up than going through the official channels.
The nub of the message was that Solzhenitsyn wanted the British authorities to provide him with a safe house, following defection to England after receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. As I passed on the information, I also expressed my worry about my own safety in the role of messenger. The fact was that I was simply a cog in a wheel, and in the “fearful” climate of the times, everyone was potentially at risk in some way or another.
So it came as an enormous relief to discover that the British authorities were expecting three messages, and mine was the second. Delivering it took a certain amount of pressure off me - I had carried out my allotted task. As the weeks passed, I watched and waited with curiosity to hear how this plan would evolve. Then events took another turn in the political game-playing that was the stuff of the Soviets' handling of dissidents. The authorities cleverly turned the tables on Solzhenitsyn by saying he could go the collect the prize, but that he would not be allowed back into Russia with it. The moral victory which would have accompanied the possibility of bringing the prize back triumphantly to Russia was denied him, so in the end he decided not to go at all. The cat had out-manoeuvred the mouse.
Many years later I spoke to Slava about this, asking him if it had ever crossed his mind that involving me could have put me at grave risk with the authorities. His reply was that he “……..trusted me 100 percent”. This was not the reply that I really expected, but given the much greater risks that he had taken, and that everyone was playing a game with the regime, I could perhaps consider it some kind of honour to have been brought into the game-plan.
Thankfully such situations were rare, and the greater part of my two years in Moscow was devoted to the purpose for which I had gone. I was privileged to be part of a unique class, whose members have gone on to become world-famous musicians. We all felt that this experience gave us something which was so special that it is almost impossible to describe. One can talk about Slava's astonishing energy, his phenomenal memory, his amazing technique, musicianship, unforgettable range of sound, kaleidoscope of colour, character - the list is endless. But the essence of the person, the magnetism of his personality, and the enormity of his talent is somewhere in the mix of all those things. He was a force of nature that can only happen very rarely, and to have had close contact with someone of this power is life-changing. The world of the cello was changed irrevocably by his existence, and so too were we. Many of those from Class 19 have gone on to stellar careers.
After I returned to England in 1971, events took a dramatic turn for Rostropovich, leading to his eventual loss of Soviet citizenship. He left Russia in 1974, not to return until communism fell in 1990. Apart from occasional meetings, I was not to have much contact with him until 1991, when I joined the London Symphony Orchestra as principal cellist. Renewing my contact with him in his capacity as guest conductor with the LSO, was accompanied by a frisson of excitement. To be working with him as colleague rather than student was a new experience, but fortunately I no longer felt the same sense of fright as I had in some of my first encounters with him. And after one performance of the Shostakovich 14th Symphony which has a solo cello part, he awarded me the honour of calling me his cellistic “son”. That would make Davidov my great great grandfather. Twenty five years after I played my my first cautious notes to him, I was deeply touched by these words. The long journey To Moscow all those years ago was worth it.