I heard this morning that Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the greatest cellists in history, has died. I was immediately reminded of time spent in his London home back in the 90’s, when I played piano for one of Vishnevskaya‘s students.
Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich’s wife was an imposing and intelligent woman with a somewhat imperious presence, who could also be charming and funny. Once, when I arrived for a lesson and the singer was delayed, she invited me into the living room, where we sat facing each other during what seemed to be an interminable silence, while I struggled to think of something to say to the grande dame.
Another time she opened up to us both about the challenges of her life in the USSR with Slava after Rostropovich was disgraced for having publicly defended Solzhenitsyn. They eventually were obliged to go into exile in the West, which she credited with having saved his life. She had been the prima donna at the Bolshoi Opera, and her career was also in ruins at that point. Her autobiography, Galina, which recounts the whole story, including how she survived the Siege of Leningrad, is totally compelling. I felt so much admiration for them both, and gratitude for living in a democracy.
Galina could never remember my name, so one day when Rostropovich strode into the living room, she introduced me simply as ‘Pianista’. Rostropovich gave me a warm welcome and a hearty kiss on both cheeks. That kind of thing makes you never want to wash again! He proudly showed us his latest acquisition– an incredible baby grand piano from the 1930’s which was totally transparent. He seemed full of life and an infectious enthusiasm, and I am so grateful to have had the privilege of meeting him. I regret that I never heard him play live. His death marks the end of an era.
For a full obituary and tributes, visit the Guardian.