The much-deserved tributes to the late cellist Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich (1927–2007) stopped short of examining the future of the instrument that he loved so well. Rostropovich was so determined that the cello should flourish as a solo instrument that he commissioned (and inspired) literally hundreds of new works, many of permanent value, by major composers like Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994), Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), among many others.
The cellist who will, for good or ill, inherit Rostropovich’s public mantle is Yo-Yo Ma, a technically adroit and charming artist and a fixture in the popular imagination. A young cellist pointed out to me recently that a cello soloist is required for about 120 symphony orchestra concerts per year in America; of these, almost 100 are performed by Ma. Although Ma is a highly accomplished musician, this situation is clearly inequitable.
Rostropovich taught his audiences to beware of such monopolies: he knew that the cello sings in many voices, expressing many different viewpoints. This vision was reflected in his being an inspirational—if only intermittently available—teacher. His real legacy lives on not in Ma’s ascent, but in brilliant cellists who are young or in mid-career. These include the remarkable Hai-Ye Ni, who recorded a CD for Naxos of works by Schumann, Beethoven, and Schubert while playing with the New York Philharmonic. (She was snatched away by the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she currently serves as principal cellist.) Another outstanding talent is Canadian-born Shauna Rolston, whose emotive CD of concertos by Edward Elgar and Camille Saint-Saëns is on CBC Records. A third is Wendy Warner, who infuses passion into Paul Hindemith’s music for cello and piano on Bridge Records.
On the European scene, Slava’s heirs include the young Danish cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen, who has recorded with panache thorny solo works by Zoltan Kodály and Benjamin Britten for Chandos, and Germany’s elegant Alban Gerhardt, who has performed a varied program of Astor Piazzolla, Maurice Ravel, and others on EMI Classics. One of the most poetic of Slava’s musical inheritors is France’s Xavier Phillips, who has recorded on the Timpani label a work by the contemporary composer Jean-Louis Agobet in homage to the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942).
Like the magically deft Feuermann, Rostropovich’s historical place is secure beside his predecessors and near-contemporaries Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Maurice Gendron, Antonio Janigro, Maurice Maréchal, Frank Miller, Aldo Parisot, Miklós Perényi, and János Starker (all must-hears for anyone even vaguely interested in the cello). Yet the forward-thinking Slava would surely also welcome the aforementioned newer talents as essential listening too.