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Rostropovich: L'archet Indomptable (The Indomitable Bow)
A film by Bruno Monsaingeon [79 mins]
Rostropovich plays Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach [48 mins]
Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich [40 mins]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
NAXOS NBD0082V Blu-ray [167 mins]

“Your Indomitable Bow” is a phrase addressed to Mstislav Rostropovich by Alexander Solzhenitysn, in reference to the help and shelter given in dark times to the writer, at some risk, by the musician. It is a reminder that Rostropovich – or Slava as he was affectionately known – had public and political roles during the cold war, and that he used his eminence in Soviet artistic life for selfless aims, which led to his eventual expulsion. Bruno Monsaingeon’s outstanding film deals with this theme alongside the remarkable musical career. It is thus a comprehensive portrait of Rostropovich, whose large and generous personality comes across in each of his many roles – cellist, piano accompanist, conductor, teacher, and collaborator with the great composers of his era. He emerges as a key cultural figure of the 20th century.

The research behind this production was doubtless exemplary, but it also benefitted from some good fortune, as we learn from the filmmaker’s booklet notes. Bruno Monsaingeon knew the cellist, who in 2000 gave him “a whole trunkful of film material about him…containing a number of treasures”. From that and other sources, such as unreleased documents, archive films, new interviews, and filmed concert performances, a compelling narrative has been put together. One element of almost any documentary though is completely absent. There is no commentary or narration by the director or anyone else. Every scene throughout the film is simply left to speak for itself, but so skilful is the editing that we do not miss the customary unseen narrator. Perhaps a viewer who barely knew who the subject was would get a bit lost at points, but that is hardly a typical viewer of such a film. The voice of an unseen Sviatoslav Richter contributes a couple of sentences about his (ambiguous) relationship to the cellist, but it is clear that that is just a small part of building the picture.

The composers we see and hear, and from whom Rostropovich inspired or commissioned major works, are mainly Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Dutilleux. Britten, though seen conducting a couple of times, does not get much of a look-in despite the five substantial works he wrote for the cellist, which made England Rostropovich’s most productive foreign destination musically, and the main omission from the story line in the film. But there is so much here to be grateful for. Solzhenitsyn’s widow, and the next generation, Solzhenitysn’s son and Rostropovich’s daughters, offer important insights in interview – and there is a 40-minute extra film, which expands on their recollections of the experiences of those two giant artists. There is also some gripping detail about life under the regime.

Rostropovich’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, is seen in archive interviews and in filmed recitals, with Rostropovich accompanying. She is the butt of one of Slava’s better jokes. When asked what voice type his wife’s soprano is, lyric or dramatic, he replies, “In the theatre, lyric; at home, dramatic.” She in turn is no shrinking violet and has some amusing things to say about their domestic and musical arguments. Whether quarrelling at home, or taking on the Soviet state, it is the artist himself who comes across as indomitable as much as his bow. There is always the famous charm and wit. The overwhelming impression is of a great musician who was also a great man.

Apart from the marvellous film itself, there are those very valuable extras. In addition to the bonus of family recollections mainly concerning Solzhenitsyn, we have films of three previously unreleased performances. Rostropovich plays the Sarabande from Bach’s 2nd Suite, and the closing variations and coda of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Boston Symphony and Ozawa. Yet perhaps the best of all is the film of a 1974 UNESCO Paris concert of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio in which the cellist is joined by Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff. Three elder statesmen of their instruments from three countries playing one of the greatest of piano trios live - that is quite some “extra”.

It was a couple of years later that I met him. I was a hanger-on at an LSO rehearsal that he was conducting. I took the chance to offer him to sign my much-loved recording of him in the Britten cello suites 1 and 2 and he did. Emboldened, I asked him, “when will you record the Third Suite, maestro?” “Not now, later,” he said, and disappeared. (Bruno Monsaingeon’s research has not discovered this important cultural exchange so I mention it here.) Rostropovich did never record the Third Suite, alas. Not long before this episode, he had taken the arm of Peter Pears at Britten’s funeral. That Third Suite is based on the Kontakion, the Russian Hymn for the Departed. Perhaps he could never quite face it and did not need insensitive hangers-on with their LPs coming up to him after a rehearsal.

Discussing his dual role of conductor and cellist with Herbert von Karajan on the film Rostropovich says, “when I conduct I am happy, but the audience is not; when I play the audience is happy, but I am not.” Karajan replies, “so you must play and conduct, so that everyone is happy”. I can’t imagine anyone being less than happy after watching this highly recommended, indeed already prize-winning, film. It is one of the best films about a musician that even Bruno Monsaingeon has ever given us.

Roy Westbrook

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