11 May 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Mstislav Rostropovich – ambassador with the cello

“It really was a milestone in the history of Dvořák performance and no less of one in the annals of musical partnership.”

Peter Cossé about Karajan’s and Rostropovich’s Dvořák recording

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007) was a cellist and conductor and a unique musician in the second half of the 20th century.

There is hardly any other instrumentalist in that period who was the dedicatee of works by so many important composers – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Bernstein, Khachaturian, Messiaen, Schnittke, Berio…

Karajan and Rostropovich met for the first time in September 1968, only a month after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. On that special day, Rostropovich performed the cello concerto of the Czech composer Dvořák in London and – being a citizen of Russia – held aloft the score as a gesture of solidarity during the applause. In that uncertain political situation, Karajan and Rostropovich recorded the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” in the “divided, vulnerable, troubled Berlin of the Cold War (Peter Cossé).”

It was Karajan’s only recording of either piece and the critics were enthusiastic: “Rostropovich and Karajan created an ideal artistic partnership—two great personalities with a great orchestra all fusing together in music-making which combines fervour with many moments of inspirational expressive beauty (Gramophone).”

Their second encounter in the studio was Karajan’s legendary first-ever interpretation of Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” in 1969 with the Russian instrumentalists Rostropovich, Richter and Oistrakh – another collaboration across the borders of the “Cold War”. Although there had been slight disagreements between Karajan and the soloists about the tempi, the recording remains one of the best-loved of this piece in the catalogue.

Karajan would not have missed the opportunity to record his favorite “cello concerto” with such an esteemed cellist, and in 1975, he filmed and recorded Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” with Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic. This story Karajan told his biographer Richard Osborne:

“Rostropovich was wonderful. When we started rehearsing, we arrived at the cello’s first entry and he came in with a dreadful slow grumbling noise. I was so surprised, I stopped the orchestra and went over to him. I said, ‘Slava, are you all right?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yes, but, you see, it’s a very old horse that I’m riding.’ Wonderful! When we are rehearsing and recording he never touches a drop of alcohol; but afterwards there are many toasts and celebrations. He is a man I like enormously.”

Many people feared Karajan’s “sporty” way of driving. So did Mstislav Rostropovich. “Once, as they hurtled down some narrow mountain road, he held up his hands in despair: ‘Herbert, I don’t mind dying. But please give the morticians a chance to sort out our bones. Yours need to go to Anif and mine need to go back to Russia. At this speed, they’ll never know which are which.’”


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Rostropovich. Listen to them here.

Peter Cossé in: Dvořák/Tchaikovsky Booklet. The Originals, Deutsche Grammophon GmbH. Hamburg, 1995

Richard Osborne “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

“Conversations with Karajan” Edited with an Instroduction by Richard Osborne. Oxford University Press. 1989


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