I still remember the first (and only) time I saw Mstislav Rostropovich live in concert. As an aspiring young cellist growing up in the Southeast, I didn’t have a lot of access to great performances. But I was willing to travel. It’s entirely possible that my cello teacher, James Stroud, and I once hopped a 5:00 a.m. flight to New York City for an afternoon recital by my all-time favorite cellist, Truls Mørk, at Lincoln Center, got a late lunch afterwards, and then scurried back to the airport that same night for a flight home, finally arriving home after midnight.
Thankfully, Rostropovich was a bit closer. Just a two-hour drive to Atlanta, where he was playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony. Still, my teacher and I decided to make a day of it. We went down in the morning, visited the instrument shop where I had bought my cello, shopped for bows, ate dinner at a divey Korean restaurant everyone was talking about (to this day, still the best duck I’ve ever had), and headed to the concert.
The power and elegance of Rostropovich’s playing, of course, was what struck us most. Also, the way he sat way at the back of his chair, with that famous angled endpin giving him such a comfortable posture. And the ecstasy on the face of the notoriously icy concertmaster of the ASO as she literally floated above her chair during their duet in the final movement.
But that musical experience paled in comparison to what came next. The immediate standing ovation, whistles, and cheers at the Woodruff Arts Center were expected. As was an encore. It was Slava’s choice of encore that surprised us most. Instead of launching into a quick, fiery showpiece designed to leave us breathless, searching for our jaws down on the floor, Rostropovich chose something a bit different. He sat down in his chair, waited until all 1,762 of us, plus the members of the Atlanta Symphony were completely silent…and then out of the stillness, came these notes:
The Sarabande from the Cello Suite #3 by J.S. Bach. Music of extreme tenderness. Music of unmatched purity. Just a man and his cello. Everyone held their breath. Nobody moved. And when it was over, we knew we would never experience anything like it again.
There are some who would suggest that Rostropovich’s cello isn’t the right instrument for the Bach Suites. That his mannerisms (vibrato, ornamentation) aren’t suitable for a historically-accurate performance. That may be true, but there’s something ineffable about hearing this music performed by this man. Rostropovich was chased out of his homeland by the Soviets. He played this music at the Berlin Wall as that mighty symbol of repression was crumbling.
That’s where my mind takes me when I hear Rostropovich play Bach. A tortured man completely at peace with the world through music. What about for you? You have the opportunity to be transported by this sublime music tomorrow morning as Classical KUSC presents a complete performance of the Cello Suite #3 by J.S. Bach in a performance by Mstislav Rostropovich. I invite you to begin your workday with this musical escape.