Our Managing Director Simon Morris recounts his memories of Mstislav ‘Slava’ Rostropovich, from playing for him in a televised masterclass to selling him a Pietro Guarneri of Venice cello in 2003.
I first saw Rostropovich perform in the late 1970s when I was a teenager. He played Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and it remains one of the most extraordinary concert experiences of my life. It was not just his remarkable technique and musicianship that so impressed me but his ability to grab the audience from the first very note and hold their full atention to the very end of the piece.
I first met Rostropovich in 1981-2 when I was principal cellist at the Britten-Pears orchestra in Aldeburgh where he was conducting. A couple of years later I also played for him in a televised masterclass in Aldeburgh. That was a nerve-wracking experience… I remember the player before me starting to tune up with great panache. Slava stopped him (before the musician had actually played a proper note) and said: ‘you have such beautiful face but you make such ugly sound’. Oh dear. This was not going to be easy…
It was many years later (around 2003) when he dropped into J & A Beare on Queen Anne Street to have his cello cleaned before performing for her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace. At the time we had the most exceptional Pietro Guarneri of Venice cello for sale, which he took the opportunity to try. He was immediately smitten and so began a journey… He first took it to his London house to try it there, and then on to his Paris apartment. In Paris he asked his wife and I to compare the tone of his cello with the Guarneri, asking us to judge their respective sounds by marking our scores on a piece of paper, while he played in the next room. He looked at our ‘scores’ and said: ‘I want this cello’.
Next stop on the journey was New York and Delaware to complete the sale. After a very entertaining day I asked Slava what his next concert was. He had several performances coming up where, again, he would play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, including a concert in Chicago. I asked him which cello he would play to which he replied: ‘Oh, this wonderful Guarneri of course’. ‘But’, I said, ‘you have only played on it for a few minutes and it is a big uncut cello with a long stop’. ‘No problem,’ he said. He was never precious about the challenges of changing instruments.