Rostropovich: The Genius of the Cello, BBC Four | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Rostropovich: The Genius of the Cello, BBC Four
Life force incarnate: former cellist-pupils, friends and family react to his performances in John Bridcut's great documentary
How can even a generously proportioned documentary do justice to one of the musical world’s greatest life forces? John Bridcut knows what to do: make sure all your interviewees have a close personal association with your chosen giant in one of his many spheres of influence, then get cellist-disciples from Rostropovich’s Class 19 in the Moscow Conservatoire – here Moray Welsh, Natalia Gutman, Karine Georgian and Elizabeth Wilson - to watch and listen to their mentor talking and playing. The result is a towering model of its kind.
Even without that special dimension of on-the-spot reaction to recorded music-making – one which Bridcut cultivated so successfully in his film about Elgar – this would be a moving testament. How could you possibly make boring a life which included a whirlwind wooing of another great performer – the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, always good value in interviews - resulting in a 53-year marriage, the game-changing performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto on a Russian orchestra’s troubled visit to the Albert Hall in 1968, the long-term fallout from Rostropovich’s courageous defence of Solzhenitsyn and his crazy, tell-no-one arrival in Moscow without a visa to make a stand against the 1991 attempted putsch?
Well, I can think of documentary-makers, mentioning no names, who could make it hagiographical, over-sensational and more about them than their subject. Bridcut has always been motivated by what seems a selfless love for complicated greatness; Britten and Elgar have been fine candidates for his determination to set misconceptions straight. Rostropovich needed no such special pleading, even if it is of incidental interest to find out, say, about the surprisingly strict father who burned the lovingly decorated jeans brought back from the West for his daughters by their more indulgent mamma (Olga and Elena Rostropovich add character and flavour throughout).
Moray Welsh remembers arriving for a private lesson with wadges of cash... only to be told that the cost was one pence
As always with this director, though, the music’s the thing. Although Bridcut sidesteps the question of Rostropovich the conductor – this is purely about the most charismatic cellist of the 20th century – he is never afraid to use other musicians to let us see how genius actually operates. We get a masterclass from other cellists on how he made his instrument a voice, how he produced that continuous, breathing legato with fabulous bow changes. We feel we’re in the same room of the Moscow Conservatoire with him teaching, as the wonderful Liza Wilson – his superb biographer, and consultant on this programme – stands there bringing the archive footage back to life.
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