November 07, 2014

Bach at the Berlin Wall: 25 years ago Rostropovich played at Checkpoint Charlie

The Russian virtuoso made history when he played Bach's Cello Suites as the Berlin Wall came crashing down.

It's one of the most iconic, inspiring images in the history of classical music: Mstislav Rostropovich, the greatest cellist of the 20th century, born into the Soviet regime and a fierce defender of freedem of artistic expression, playing his beloved Bach in front of the Berlin Wall at the moment of its downfall, the graffitied Mickey Mouse behind him a symbol of innocence lost and perhaps one day reclaimed.

There could not have been a better choice of music: after all, the 'peaceful revolution' had begun a few months earlier with the masses assembled outside St Nicholas' Church in Leipzig, where Bach had composed his greatest masterpieces.

One morning in November, 1989, so the story goes, Rostropovich heard on the radio from his Paris apartment about the crowds of demonstrators gathering in Berlin. He immediately persuaded a friend who owned a private jet to fly him to what had been the scene of so much fear, oppression and bloodshed.

Arriving at the ominous Checkpoint Charlie, Rostropovich borrowed a chair from one of the guards and played the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No.2 for the people gathered, an outpouring of emotion in music as the wall dividing East and West Germany came tumbling down.

Six years later, Rostropovich made this legendary recording of the complete Bach Cello Suites, which remains the benchmark performance and is newly reissued as a jewel in the Warner Classics catalogue.

Rostropovich's iconic 1995 recording of Bach's Cello Suites is available here and in a 4LP limited-edition box set.

Rostropovich at Berlin Wall