CONVERSATION WITH YOSIF FEIGELSON
by Paul Tseng
PT: Please describe your association with Rostropovich.
JF: In terms of my association with Rostropovich, I studied with him for three years from 1971 to 1974. It was after I took the first prize in the Concertino Prague Competition. Rostropovich also won first prize in a competition with Daniel Shafran [Prague Spring Festival]. He heard about me from a friend. I remember he held an audition in his flat in Moscow and I actually came a year earlier to the conservatory because I had to graduate a year later. But he said I should take a one year extension in my studies. At that time he had gotten involved with Solzhenitsyn and it was a difficult time because he wasn't concertizing very much. But for me it was fortunate because I had regular lessons with him twice a week, which was more than I could have ever hoped for. So his bad luck became my good luck.
PT: That's probably more lessons than anyone has ever had with him. It's a very rare opportunity.
JF: That's right, and I was up to the last movement [of the Symphony-Concerto] with him when he left in 1974. He knew that I would be playing in the Tchaikovsky Competition. He was announced as the competition head. But at the same time, the situation was really deteriorating very quickly. The authorities didn't allow him to do one of his big [conducting] ideas, Strauss' Die Fledermaus, with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya. Consequently, there was a big uprising. Anyway, that's a long story in itself. He left, if I remember correctly, on the 25th of May 1974 but on the 24th I still had some lessons with him. He was really anxious to help me till the last moment. But realistically, he knew that it would not really go far since I was associated with him and the new directions from the party ministry were not to let me win anything in the Tchaikovsky Competition. And that's what happened. I did win a prize but not first.
PT: Did Rostropovich ever tell you about his friendship with Prokofiev?
JF: Yes, definitely. He said many times that during the very difficult period in Prokofiev's life, he often lived in their apartment and they tried to raise money to help him. This was the time after the Zhadnov protest which was very difficult for Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but especially Prokofiev somehow. Because, you should realize that Prokofiev was away from the country in the 1930's and considered by the authorities somewhat of an outsider. They never forgave him for staying in the west so long. Shostakovich was one of the few people who helped him at the time because nobody wanted to get too close.
PT: Do you have any sense of how Prokofiev himself felt about returning to the Soviet Union?
JF: Basically, he wanted to return. But you know, it was one of those Stalin tricks where at first they said he would be hailed as the greatest composer and would promise him all sorts of things. But when he actually came they didn't treat him too well.
PT: Were they aware of the type of music he wrote while they were trying to lure him back to the Soviet Union?
JF: Yes, but as a matter of fact he did begin to write more melodic and conventional music after he returned to Russia. But it was kind of a fifty-fifty situation. He definitely felt that he wanted to return and was always homesick for Russia.
PT: In your opinion, why did Prokofiev (in the last four years of his life) write twice as many works for the cello than he did before 1949?
JF: That's definitely because he was so close to Rostropovich. Rostropovich's family, his parents, were constantly contacting Prokofiev. This came with the family, not just with Rostropovich himself.
PT: So Prokofiev was an old friend to Rostropovich's family.
JF: Yes, it was a much longer association. But in this period before Prokofiev's death, Rostropovich was definitely there.
PT: To what extent did Rostropovich influence Prokofiev's style in cello writing in the Op. 119 Sonata, the Symphony-Concerto, and the Concertino Op. 132?
JF: Rostropovich's influence since Prokofiev's Op. 119 occurred basically in that he had so many new ideas in terms of technique and getting the cello part as virtuosic as possible. If you look at Prokofiev's first Cello Concerto you see that it is nowhere even close. There were many times where he would say to Prokofiev "why would you write this part for the flute? The cello can do that. I could play that passage, why should the flute play it?"
PT: So at that time, Prokofiev was not yet aware of what Rostropovich could actually do on the cello.
JF: Yes, he would ask Rostropovich to play for him and demonstrate some passage work. He would sit there for a half-hour just playing all kinds of double-stops and technical passages.
PT: In Rostropovich's memoirs it appears that Prokofiev had already written the Op. 119 Sonata and simply asked Rostropovich to edit the cello part. But it seems to be very heavily influenced by Rostropovich in the cello part.
JF: Actually, it had already been composed by the time discussion on their ideas on the cello part for the Symphony-Concerto had begun. It is basically a parallel work in many respects. The sonata is still not as virtuosic as the Symphony-Concerto, but at least he was more aware of more of the possibilities. He had not collaborated with Rostropovich as much on the Sonata as on the Symphony-Concerto.
PT: Are the parallel octaves and parallel sixths scales found in the 1st movement and cadenza of the Symphony-Concerto typical of the technique found in Russian cello training?
JF: You are right to say that it is typical of the Russian cello training. If you look at Davidov's music, for example, the concerti or the Concerto-Allegro, if you've seen the score, it uses it heavily. Even in nineteenth century music in the Dvorak Concerto, Klengel uses it and Grützmacher uses it. So you can say that it was not uniquely a Russian technique but European technique as well.
PT: Please describe, if you would, how the latter technique is executed in the manner that Rostropovich does.
JF: There are some secrets about it which I can show you, it's really not that difficult. But you need to practice it. It's more important not to get stiff. Most people just stiffen their hand and they start to glissando and it doesn't work like that. Look at the second book of Gruetzmacher, you can find the same technique there. The whole European cello school had been going parallel to the late development of violin technique. But certain aspects of the German school were problematic. I remember even from my experience in the Moscow Conservatory we had a lot of German students (it was really kind of international) and they always complained about their cramped hands. They would ask, "how do you play that difficult passage without getting cramped?" The Russian technique basically teaches you not to be stiff. This is one of the biggest dangers of the cello, to get cramped. If you are fully aware of such things you can learn how to find those moments of complete relaxation even in the middle of the most difficult passage.
PT: I think that's especially important in some of more complicated twentieth century cello pieces.
JF: Yes, the more complicated the piece the more you need to find your root in not getting stiff.
PT: So relaxation is the key to executing this technique. Is this what made this technique more widely used in Russian cello music?
JF: Well, for example, the biggest difference between the Russian School and that of the German and French is that the German and French emphasize very strong left hand fingers and a very pronounced beating against the string. If you listen to Casals' recordings you can hear his fingers beating against the fingerboard. It gives that kind of bang. This was never present in the Russian school for the simple reason that, as we say, no matter how strongly you beat the string, the sound is not in the left hand but in the right. So the emphasis is in the right hand. I would say that when I started studying in Riga [Latvia] I had more of a German training. But when I came to Rostropovich it was a completely new phenomenon to me. I think I am trying to maneuver between the two because left hand strength is definitely important. But maybe not to emphasize it to such a degree that it gets in your way.
PT: When looking at Prokofiev's first Cello Concerto, one can see an obvious difference in the use of the cello as a solo instrument. I read that Piatigorsky played for Prokofiev and persuaded him to write this work.
JF: With all my great respect for Piatigorsky, he was never so close to technical perfection as Rostropovich. There's no question about it that he was a very charming player but I don't think he was a very strong technician on the cello.
PT: It seems that though Prokofiev was aware of some string technique there was so much that he didn't write for the cello until someone like Rostropovich proved to him what could be done.
JF: That's right. Rostropovich always told him that he should write whatever his imagination led him to. If it was too difficult he could always downgrade it. There was nothing to worry about. Even nowadays composers can still expand cello technique more.
PT: Doesn't it seem that, prior to meeting Rostropovich, the two pieces Prokofiev wrote for the cello were not very ambitious. According to all I've read, he never seemed very enthusiastic about writing for the cello.
JF: Just look at his Ballade for example -- an early work. The cello is really very static. I don't know how many sixteenth notes there are; it's practically all half notes.
PT: And it's not written in a good register for the cello either.
JF: That's right.
PT: The Concertino was completed by Rostropovich. Was it his idea to use the G minor episode from the finale of the Symphony-Concerto as the principal theme of the Concertino's finale?
JF: Actually it was Prokofiev's idea. But you see it was not completely the same, it was slightly different. They both liked the theme so much that they wanted to follow up on it.
PT: In Rostropovich's memoirs about Prokofiev he said that the composer described the G minor episode of the Symphony-Concerto's finale as a "chorus of Poor Relations" in Harlow Robinson's book. Can you explain what he meant?
JF: No, it's actually a folk tune. Well, not exactly the folk tune, but it's so close. [JF begins to sing the tune in Russian]. . . there were words to it. "We drink to Stalin; for his health and for the state. " The tune already existed but during that time the words were changed. In my opinion it was put in as a definite satire. It is one of the things that Prokofiev put in his music to express his frustration with the Stalin regime.
PT: It seems like there is a good deal of irony addressed about the Stalin regime in other Soviet composers' works as well.
JF: They could only hide their satire from outsiders. But musicians and musically educated people could understand it.
PT: Would you say that the Symphony-Concerto is an improved version of the Op. 58 Cello Concerto, or are they to be viewed as different pieces?
JF: It's so far removed from it that it really has a life of its own. If you look carefully, you'll see that there a very few similarities.
PT: Do you know why in 1956 Rostropovich introduced the Op. 125 as Prokofiev's Second Cello Concerto when he premiered it in the United States? Didn't Prokofiev ultimately call it "Symphony-Concerto" before his death in 1953?
JF: There must have been some misunderstanding or miscommunication. Prokofiev called it "Symphony-Concerto."
PT: The only published edition of Prokofiev's Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello is a version by Vladimir Blok. It is made up of the composer's sketches. In your opinion, is this a valid edition?
JF: Yes, I've played it on many occasions. I find that it is a wholesome piece. There's nothing wrong with it. Most of the material is authentic. Mr. Blok put together the unfinished fragments quite well. Most of the themes are intact and perfectly constructed in Prokofiev's style. I actually remember playing it for a young artist's competition for Soviet music and received a prize.
PT: Before Rostropovich, even in the Soviet Union, cello concertos were being written for other cellists, like Khatchaturian's cello concerto.
JF: Yes, Khatchaturian's Cello Concerto was written before Rostropovich's advancement but the Rhapsody-Concerto was written for him.
PT: His first Cello Concerto was dedicated to the cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, wasn't it?
JF: Knushevitsky was the other big name cellist before Rostropovich took the forefront. Definitely the third name that comes to mind is Daniel Shafran. Knushevitsky was from the previous generation, then came Shafran who was a bit older than Rostropovich, who was the youngest. They were three absolutely different players.
PT: I read that the first cello concerto that was ever dedicated to Rostropovich was by Reinhold Glieré. But it was originally written for Knushevitsky.
JF: It's true. He added some passages to it. There were some bad rumors which said that Rostropovich simply knocked Knushevitsky out of his place. Knushevitsky was a much gentler person, that's for sure, but he was also unfortunately quite a drunkard. People keep forgetting that. In later years, when he was in his mid-60's he could barely play because he drank so much. It was such a bad habit that with or without Rostropovich he simply was not recuperating much.
PT: You mentioned that Rostropovich was experiencing great difficulty with the Soviet government while you were studying with him. How did that affect you?
JF: You would not believe how that affected me. When I was in the Moscow Conservatory, I could have basically skipped everything except my cello lessons. I could have easily skipped anything. He [Rostropovich] was such a czar. I could skip orchestra all together, Party related things, classes about the history of communism. When Rostropovich left the Soviet Union there were rumors that I would be going with my family as well to England. When I came back to Moscow the local authorities, bureaucrats, and conservatory officials were just furious; they didn't want to see me. [But] there were still people who were sympathetic to me and felt that they shouldn't blame me for whatever Rostropovich had done. I was just his student. It calmed down a bit but I still had to work harder than other students to pacify relations there. Then I studied with Natasha Gutman who also felt very much as an outsider there. She was never an enthusiast about teaching and she had her own very long story of antagonism with authorities. It was another way for her to at least earn a little money as a conservatory teacher. I was her last student too. When I graduated in 1976 she left immediately. [Laughter]. . . I was the last student both of them had at the conservatory.
PT: Would you say that Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto and his collaboration with Rostropovich set a precedent for the major cello compositions in the 20th century?
JF: It definitely inspired much of it. And Rostropovich never kept it quiet. If you've ever watched him closely you'd see that he's an extremely energetic person. Maybe in the last couple of years he's settled down a bit. But he was like a rocket. I remember several times around two o'clock in the morning he'd call me up to discuss things. It was really wild. So in that way he'd run after every more or less major composer. He simply wouldn't let them get any sleep. "When will you write it for me, when will you write it for me?" He openly said that he liked the idea of expanding the cello repertoire. Pieces written for cello from the 1950's on are almost always connected to Rostropovich.
PT: It's amazing that the majority of the 20th century cello repertoire was written for Rostropovich. Thank you for your input.
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