Five Former Students on Rostropovich

Compiled by Stephanie Powell


PLAYER Elizabeth Wilson

I first met Rostropovich backstage at the Edinburgh Festival after his electrifying performance of Shostakovich’s First Concerto. I was just 15, an aspiring cellist, if rather backward in standard, and here was my idol, whose recordings I knew inside out, who had just played the concerto that I most adored. Meeting him was just as exciting as hearing him play—he was still exhilarated and bubbling with energy after the performance. I was immediately folded into his famous bear-hug embrace, and addressed directly, “When are you coming to play for me? Tomorrow?” I was amazed that he even noticed me, and also filled with terror.

I found out the next day that his external ebullience was matched by a deep seriousness. He set me a program of three and a half hours of practice a day: two hours for scales, one hour for studies, and “half an hour for the rest.” He promised to hear me next time he came to the UK—a promise he kept every six months for the next two years.

Rostropovich was larger than life, a unique phenomenon. The emotional temperature rose sharply when he walked into a room. The complete attention he could give you, fixing you with his laser-blue eyes, and the high-voltage excitement with which he lived his life were seemingly incompatible, but fused together in a generosity of spirit that exemplified Rostropovich.

It is difficult to define separate moments in Rostropovich’s teaching, for he saw everything as a unified whole. All his conservatoire class feared his irony, yet criticism was always balanced by a belief that his good students could manage anything that he did. Rostropovich often saw an easy technical solution to what seemed an insoluble problem. I remember attacking the Saint-Saëns concerto with great passion, to be told that temperament was no substitute for accuracy, and I should think melodically. This changed my understanding of the opening.

Purely instrumental suggestions were rarely made but to the point. Once Rostropovich advised Jacqueline du Pré, “If I want to make progress I practice very slow bows in forte near the bridge. It improves the sound no end!” I remember being told to play Piatti’s First Caprice “in long legato bows up to speed, with minimal movement for the string crossings.”

This had a magical effect, allowing me to keep the bow in the string using natural arm weight.

Rostropovich was a revelatory teacher, and every suggestion was allied to the music. Using a wider or narrower vibrato to convey a particular color or emotion, using differing bow speeds and weight in relation to sound. Pauses, too, had significance: the “pregnant” silence that preceded the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Sonata or Bach’s D minor Sarabande, fading to a space beyond silence where one crossed into a different dimension, as we ourselves cross from life to death.


PLAYER Ivan Monighetti


He was such an incredible person—many memories are coming to mind all at once. One of the most amazing things was his cycle of concerts in the season 1963–64. Somehow he set the world record, which has never been beaten. He played in one season in 11 different programs all of the concertos written for cello. Almost half of them
were written for him—they were premiered during this season!

And he repeated it later in London and New York, at Carnegie HalI. I have a poster of this season in 1967. He played in three weeks, eight different programs, also with premieres, first performances in the United States or outside the Soviet Union. It was actually a risk to play so much new music, completely unknown to the American audience, and he did it in this one cycle in three weeks.

Again there were many unforgettable moments. Maybe one thing which could be pointed out, something that would say a lot about his method in teaching: I remember playing the first movement of the Dvořák concerto for him and he told me, “Imagine that you have to speak at the United Nations and you have three minutes to make a statement and that should be your Dvořák concerto.” So, he didn’t teach how to play the cello, or technique, but rather he was interested in musical philosophy, the message that the artist had to bring to the audience. This is what he did himself. His performances were something that extended beyond the standard concerts, whether it was a political manifestation or an appeal to humanity.

Photo by Kate Mount

PLAYER Karine Georgian

During the seven years I spent as Rostropovich’s student—five in the legendary Classroom 19 at the Moscow Conservatory and two as a postgraduate—my entire horizons (not simply musical) were almost wholly occupied by his ideas, his personality, his expectations, the sheer scale of his experience in music and in life generally. Life in his orbit was a rollercoaster of terror, stimulation, challenge, and inspiration.

When I entered the class I was well prepared at a technical level, as I had been studying with my father at the rival Gnessin Institute (now the Russian Academy of Music). But I was soon to learn that the Rostropovich “method” came from a totally different world, the guiding principle being to discover what lay within a student and to employ a highly individual application of psychology, imagery, and the power of suggestion to enable the realization of this potential. In this new world you never knew what was coming next; only gradually would the imaginative power of the infusion reveal itself in enhanced technique, sound, and musical insight.

My initial audition, which was conducted in his apartment—in itself a startling revelation to a conventionally cloistered, Soviet-reared 18-year-old—serves to illustrate the point. To put, as I presumed, the nervous ingénue at her ease, he asked if I would like something to eat. Although it was the last thing I wanted, anxious not to offend, I said yes please. He went into the lavish (by Soviet standards) kitchen, bustled about for a few minutes, and emerged bearing a fried egg on a plate with a knife and fork. To his evident delight I tried desperately and unsuccessfully to eat it, until he took pity on me and explained it was a rubber toy he had brought back from abroad. I had no idea such an object even existed. A practical joke, yes, and perhaps rather a cruel one, but the motive was to test my ability to cope with the unexpected. Giving me no time to recover, he asked me to play the enormous, manic second movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto. Somehow I must have passed the test because I was accepted, but the experience was one I have never forgotten.

In class, Rostropovich saw at once that I needed to be shaken out of my comfort zone and allow the music to flow out instead of merely obsessively polishing it. “Gnessinskie shtrishoshki,” he would shout, “Rukha, you need to get rid of those Gnessinskie shtrishoshki!” (“Rukha,” short for “starukha”—“old woman”—was what he called me almost from the first moment; I was just 18. The target of his criticism was my “puny little inhibited Gnessin-taught bow strokes.”)   

Mstislav Leopoldovich had a laser-like understanding not only of everything connected with instrumental performance—technical command, musical insight, psychological orientation, communication, the ability to listen—but of the person. This is what could make lessons with him such an unnerving experience: Sometimes it could almost amount to being emotionally X-rayed. Now that I am myself a teacher, I know how demanding such an approach is for both sides. It is the diametric opposite of analyzing, say, a particular technical problem and demonstrating “now this is how you should do it.” Most of his teaching was in fact done from the piano, not from the cello. He was, as everyone knows, an exceptional pianist, but that was not the point: The point was that the piano was the most effective medium for conveying the particular expressivity he wanted to get across. His reaction to my performance of the Brahms E minor sonata was simply to tell me: “Rukha, you haven’t shed enough tears in your life!” That single observation transformed my understanding not just of that work, but of Brahms’ music overall.

I didn’t agree with every nuance or interpretative image in every work he urged on me, nor, despite the overwhelming authority he exerted, would he have expected or wanted me to. The object, as with all his students, was to open doors of technique, imagination, and impulse, to extend us far, far further than we ever thought we could possibly go, to realize our full potential as musicians.   



PLAYER Mischa Maisky

He had such incredible energy, fantastic imagination, and emotional generosity, which came through onstage in his playing—and for anyone who ever met him. I was lucky to spend a lot of time with him over the years. It was an unforgettable, incredible experience and the time of my life.

From the moment I started playing cello, I idolized him and it was the dream of my life to study with him. It was basically like a dream come true, but in addition to this I was incredibly lucky because, if I may say so, I had an even more special, intense relationship with him than just a student-teacher relationship. I started studying with him very soon after my father suddenly passed away, and he basically became a second father to me. He supported me on a personal level before I even became his student during this very difficult moment. One of his few unfulfilled dreams in life was to have a son—he had two beautiful daughters, but never managed to have a son. And actually the last time we met, before his passing at the Kronberg Cello Festival, he had a long conversation with me and told me, “You know, you were like a son to me.”

He was like a second father to me in many ways, so naturally on a professional level it was an incredible experience. Everybody knows that he was one of the greatest cellists ever, but I would say that in my opinion he was an even greater teacher than cellist because of his imagination: The cello was too small. He couldn’t express everything he felt about music on this small wooden box. And everyone knows he was a fantastic pianist, so he practically never used the cello. He had a second piano playing the orchestra part, and it was incredible.

But he was a very unusual teacher. I mean, I believe I didn’t have that many teachers, but I know in my experience, he had a very different approach to teaching than normal teachers. He never showed you how to play something on the cello. The main thing I learned from him, and I’m sure all my fellow students of his would agree, was that the cello is only what the instrument implies: It’s a vehicle that helps us achieve the main, ultimate goal, which is music—and not the other way around. How you get to the destination is not that important—it’s important to get to the right place. He never tried to make small copies of himself; he never tried to make us play the way he played things, but he helped everyone to develop their own personality and get their idea of what the composer supposedly wanted to say with this music. And that is quite different, I believe, than what normal teachers do.

Later in my life when I studied with Piatigorsky—he had a similar approach to teaching—it was like a continuation. But the four years that I studied with Rostropovich were the most important in my development as a cellist and as a musician.

There are plenty of rather unforgettable lessons. I recall maybe about a dozen very different lessons about the Debussy Sonata—he could teach the same pieces so many different ways and come to the same points from so many different directions. There are many different ways to reach the final destination.


It’s very difficult to describe, but in particular, a lesson I remind myself of regularly, I wasn’t playing, I was listening: A student played the Beethoven sonata, and she didn’t really play it well. He gave her a very short, but very impressive lecture about Beethoven and about different materials, different quality of sounds, expression. And at the end he said, “Do you understand that you played badly?” And she said, “Yes, but what can I do?” He said, “Well, play it well!” She said, “But it’s difficult!” And he said, “And life is easy?” And I always remember this when something is difficult—so is life!

One can always see the glass half empty, but I prefer to at least try to see it half full and be grateful for everything. Even my studies were interrupted by being arrested and put in jail and a labor camp. I had some very hard times when I didn’t even see my cello for years, but I sincerely never regret it. I am somehow grateful for my destiny, for these experiences, no matter how painful they may be. Professional difficulties [Ed Note: Like traveling and distance from his six “beautiful and charming” children] are combined with pleasure and privilege, compared to others all over the world.

Rostropovich was incredibly humane in this way he would play—he was incredibly warm and [had an] overwhelming type of personality. After each concert and many other occasions, [he would talk to concertgoers]: There are so many people who say, “My best friend Slava!” I’d never in my wildest dreams call him by his first name! I always spoke about him, and my neck was hurting because I was looking so high up! He was such a legend to me. I idolized him and his playing.

We had the same patrimony, if you know what it means in Russian, our fathers had the same name, which is very unusual in Russia. It was a sign for me of some special connection. [When I speak] Russian, I have a  very similar speech impediment as him—neither of us can roll our r’s the way Russians do. My parents, when I was a young boy, actually wanted to try to fix it. But I heard an interview with Rostropovich on the radio. I thought it was a sign that he was sent from heaven. It’s childish, but at the time it’s a sign of how much I idolized him. Which is actually not very healthy—I tell young people who tell me similar things, one shouldn’t have idols. We should all remember that no matter how some successful interpreters might be compared to their colleagues, all of us compared to the great composers are just tiny little mosquitos and one should never forget this!


PLAYER Natalia Gutman

There are so many memories with Rostropovich . . . I can say only one thing: If he [didn’t] exist, we should imagine somebody like him. He was a phenomenon of human communication. He gave us constant joy and friendliness.

[My] most surprising teaching moment [with him] was when we came with my beloved pianist and concert partner, Aleksey Nasedkin, for [a] lesson on Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata. At some point [during] the lesson, Rostropovich went to the piano and played all of the sonata on the piano—exaggerating all of his ideas to show us what he meant. He was exactly so free—[he could] express his musicality on the piano [as well as the] cello.