Karine Georgian cellist

Musings and interviews:
Recollections of my teacher

Like any performing musician, I stand on the shoulders of generations of musical forebears. The immediate supporting branches of my ‘cello tree’ were my two teachers: my father, Armen Yakovlevich Georgian, and Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, men who held some aspects of character, artistic personality, philosophical outlook and pedagogical approach in common, but in others they could hardly have been more different.

My father was a superbly schooled instrumentalist, a respected chamber musician, cellist of the Komitas Quartet and of the Piano Trio he founded to broadcast on All-Union Radio. For over fifty years, thirty of them as Professor, he taught at the Gnessin Institute (now the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music) in Moscow, where hundreds of pupils passed through his hands, many of them owing first-class professional careers to his guidance. What he shared with Mstislav Leopoldovich was, above all, a determination that the student invariably give the maximum, go the extra mile, aim beyond the limits that seemed possible. No excuses, no allowances for extenuating circumstances, no cosseting of fragile adolescent egos. To that extent, moving from one to the other, which I did at the age of eighteen on being accepted by Rostropovich into his class at the rival Moscow Conservatoire, was not quite as great a shock to the system as it might have been.

But in almost every other respect, a shock was what it was. First of all, my father was essentially a conformist, with a cast of mind exemplified by his seeming not to chafe under the restriction of never being allowed the opportunity to travel abroad and develop the international career his manifest abilities and achievements would seem to have merited. (The same was true of my mother, an exceptionally gifted lyric soprano: neither of them even once in their long careers performed outside the Soviet Union.) The reason was the black mark against the family caused by my father’s sister having married a Swedish diplomat in the 1920s and, when such a thing was still possible, emigrated to live in Stockholm.

The last thing you could say about Rostropovich was that he was a conformist. Rules were rules, but while you had to know them before you could break them, the moment they served no purpose other than to hamper ambition and imagination, broken they should be. My father had taught me, between the ages of five and eighteen, virtually everything there was to know about playing the cello. For Mstislav Leopoldovich this was only the starting point, as it was for everyone who entered his class. He had respect for my father as a colleague who had himself studied under a cellist he greatly admired, Rachmaninoff’s close friend Anatoly Brandukov. But he wanted to make something entirely different of his new student. His method, if I may call by such a name his wholly individual, instinctive, custom-made approach, was to subject each student to an intensive, non-verbal, psychological evisceration with the aim of finding out where were the blockages inhibiting the full flowering of the student’s capacities, whether technical or interpretative or personal. With no holds barred, he went straight for the throat: my sound. He contemptuously dismissed my ‘Gnessinskie shtrishochki’ (you have to imagine the devastating palatals and sibilants) — my cautiously meticulous ‘Gnessin-derived puny little bow-strokes’. They weren’t just limiting the colours of my palette, they were narrowing my whole understanding of the structure and meaning of the music. I must grow up, must learn a whole new vocabulary of life, must realise that horizons were not where I thought they were. To this end I was abruptly jerked out of my comfort zone. The first half-year was almost exclusively devoted to my cantilena sound, abandoning the big mainstream repertoire I had been brought up on and expected to continue worrying away at, in favour of a succession of miniature pieces designed to explore an infinite range of timbres through understanding and mastering the subtle connection between vibrato and colour.

Being taught by Rostropovich meant that you could never be sure what was coming next. The underlying watchword would always be some aspect of expressivity, but hardly ever would the precise nature be the one you expected. You could not fool him: he knew instantly if you were less than constantly mindful of why you were presuming to go on stage to play a work (and playing for Rostropovich’s class was, you must believe me, more of an ordeal than performing on the concert platform). The only permissible route was to penetrate ever deeper into the mind of the composer, and having done so to filter it back through yourself. When I was finally allowed to get back to ‘big’ works, he told me that to make sense of Brahms’s E minor Sonata I had to have shed a great many more tears than I had hitherto in my life, which until that point had consisted of the cello and not much else. For the second movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata he asked me to play not the cello part but the piano part, while he played the cello line on the studio’s other piano. (At least, in a rare example of indulgence to an only minimally capable pianist he did not ask me to do the same for the finale!) It was not enough to know your part; you had to know the complete score, and in concerto performances accompanied by the wonderful and formidable class pianist (and the maestro’s devoted acolyte) Aza Amintaeva, woe betide you if at any moment you could not identify what orchestral instruments would be playing. I remember one time when he was ill in bed, but that was no reason not to give me a lesson, so I had to go to Aza’s apartment which was in the same building as his own flat, and we played through our assigned repertoire with the telephone receiver strategically placed on the floor (local phone calls of any length in Moscow were free at that time). Occasionally through our playing we could hear squawking noises through the receiver, but only when we stopped could I pick it up to hear the sustained barrage of imprecations and advice.

Lessons were a roller-coaster of terror, stimulation, challenge, inspiration. Sometimes the insights could come in such unorthodox ways it would take time to realise that there had been any at all. My lesson on the Second Bach Suite, which took place not in Class 19 in the Conservatoire but in his flat, consisted of my playing through all six movements without a single comment. At the end, all I heard was: ‘Rukha, I don’t agree with your interpretation. Go away and think about it.’ This was like being thrown into deep water without being able to swim. But of course I did think about it, and gradually began to work out for myself what could have brought about such a crushing critique, and what I should do about it. Sometimes a great teacher who knows what it means never to spare himself can do that without in the process destroying the student. But you must know the student inside out to take the risk, and that is exactly what Mstislav Leopoldovich made certain he did. ‘Rukha’ (from starukha, ‘old woman’ — I was as I have said, eighteen) was the nickname he bestowed on me right at the outset, and he was still calling me it more than forty five years later when in a characteristically generous gesture, ill as he was and, as it proved, in the last months of his life, he cheerfully agreed to be driven 650 kilometres from London to Manchester and back in a single day to give a masterclass at the Royal Northern College of Music which included some of my own students. Even at that time his energy, capacity for work and indomitable will were well-nigh superhuman: it had been by any measure a tiring day, but on arriving back at his London flat, as we were saying good-bye he said he was now going to practise in preparation for the upcoming premiere in Vienna of the new piece Penderecki had written for him, the Largo. I did not of course know this then, but he had already decided this performance, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Seiji Ozawa, was to be his farewell to the concert platform. In class he had repeatedly urged us to treat every concert as if it were the last one we would ever play, as he claimed always to do. Now, for the real thing, the preparation was no more and no less intense and meticulous than it had always been.

An essential aspect of Rostropovich the teacher’s concentration on expressivity rather than technique was that most of the teaching was done from the piano, rarely if ever did he use the cello to demonstrate or illustrate. He found the piano a far more useful medium to bring out hidden harmonies, polyphonic lines, climactic phrases, modulations, and so on. After half a century I still recall with mixed excitement and embarrassment a lesson on the Prelude and Fugue of Bach’s Fifth Suite, in which Mstislav Leopoldovich’s improvised piano accompaniment of implicit harmonies and fugal entries, became so impassioned, so loud with the sustaining pedal jammed down, that I could hardly hear myself. I’m sure no one else could either, but since the reason for his passionate interpolations was obviously that he didn’t think much of my interpretation, I could only be grateful that it was largely drowned out by the noise of the piano. Nevertheless, the lesson of how much I still had to learn to achieve a convincing performance of Bach’s incredible achievement, whereby a single melodic line is able to convey both the harmony and the counterpoint of a complex multi-voice fugue, has stayed with me for the rest of my life, not least when years later I came to make my own recording of the Suites.

In the early 1960s, the time when I was studying with Rostropovich, he had not yet ‘come out’ with the outspoken expressions of opposition to the sterile political and creative repression of the Soviet regime that later, culminating in his open letter to Pravda and his public support of Solzhenitsyn, resulted in forced exile and loss of citizenship for himself and his family. As students we knew of and admired his independence of thought and behaviour, we marvelled at his unique ability to play the system especially in securing such astounding privileges as foreign travel and a real live Western car (Mercedes), and we enjoyed the sardonic wit of calling his beloved little dog ‘Pooksi’ (from that most threadbare of Soviet slogans ‘Poot’ k Sotsializmu’, the ‘Path to Socialism’.)

But as far as we were concerned, the unusual freedom with which he operated was merely an aspect of his immense and, so we thought, unchallengeable, authority, rather than potentially leading to any serious conflict with the regime. When, still an undergraduate, I learned that because Rostropovich had concluded I might be a serious contender for the forthcoming Tchaikovsky Competition, I would be permitted to take my all-important year-end exam in the vital subject of Scientific Communism early so that the remaining months could be devoted wholly to preparation for the Competition. Suddenly I was six weeks away from confronting this huge task, failure in which would put paid to my chances of participating in the Competition at all. Panic-stricken, I got up early each morning and before touching the cello would try my hardest to unravel the (to me) impenetrable theories and precepts contained in the set texts on which I would be examined by a panel of experts in the dreaded Cabinet (Office) of Marxism-Leninism on the third floor of the Conservatoire. Despite all my efforts I found myself unable to retain even the slightest semblance of understanding of the subject. On the morning in question I presented myself in the Cabinet, expecting an ignominious rejection and the ruin of all my hopes. To my utter astonishment, no sooner had I entered the chamber of horrors than the door opened again and Mstislav Leopoldovich came in to sit at the back of the room with his arms folded and a don’t-speak-to-me expression on his face. I cannot remember what nonsense I babbled to the questions put to me, but at the end the examiner simply nodded, said thank you, very good, that will be all. Mstislav Leopoldovich left the room without having said a single word. That is what I mean by Rostropovich’s authority: he knew perfectly well that I would be bound to fail the test hopelessly, but that to signal that I should not be made a sacrificial victim, all that would be needed was for him to be present.

The seven years I spent as a student in Rostropovich’s Class 19 in the Moscow Conservatoire changed my life and my music-making. Although my teacher’s open challenges to the political and social orthodoxies of the Soviet Union still lay some years in the future, I learnt from him that there was more to life than assiduously absorbing and reproducing what one was taught or what was conventionally acceptable. As with all his students, his object was to open for me doors of technique, imagination and impulse, to make me grow further than I believed possible as a musician and as a person. He could do, and did, so much more for us than ensure that we fulfilled our full potential as performers. If he considered we were up to making use of them, he would exploit his unrivalled status and connections with colleagues, especially composers, to persuade them to listen to and critique his students’ interpretations of their music. At his request I played their concertos to both Arno Babadjanian and Aram Khachaturian; Khachaturian in particular so much liked my performances of the Concerto and the Cello Rhapsody that he invited me to go with him to America to tour both works with the Chicago Orchestra under his baton, and that is how I made my debut in the United States.

As for the wider question of influencing ideas and ways of looking at the world, I must not leave the impression that there was ever any attempt to ‘infect’ us students with dangerous notions, as they would inevitably be regarded in a repressive society such as the USSR in the 1960s; we simply understood that our mentor was a man who took for granted that it was our right, even our obligation, as it was his, to make our own decisions, to make the best possible use of our opportunities, to practise our art as musicians and to live in the way that seemed best to us. I cannot count the number of times he said, in mock-threatening tones: ‘Remember, when I’m gone, I’ll be looking down on you from up there, so be sure to think about what I’m telling you.’ My feeling that this might just be true is at least strong enough for me to continue doing whatever lies in my power to live up to his matchless inspiration and to pass on as much of it as I can to my own students.

Karine Georgian
July 2017