Pride in the Piatigorsky tradition

March 24, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

That Nathaniel Rosen will perform Paul Hindemith's neglected 1948 Cello Sonata Sunday evening in the Shriver Hall Concert Series makes sense.

The sonata was written for the Russian-American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and Rosen is the guest artist for Shriver's annual Piatigorsky Memorial Concert, which honors the great cellist. But every time Rosen performs, he tries to honor Piatigorsky's memory.

He began to study with Piatigorsky as a 13-year-old in 1962 and remained close to him until his death in 1976. "I remember the 1960s -- the years when I studied with him -- as the most wonderful of my life," the 46-year-old cellist says. "There was a closeness between those of us who studied with him and with Piatigorsky himself that was unique."

An extraordinary number of superb young cellists made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to study with Piatigorsky -- Lynn Harrell, Mischa Maisky and Stephen Kates among them. But it is perhaps Rosen, the youngest of them, whose playing approaches Piatigorsky's sweeping eloquence and aristocratic grandeur most closely. Certainly, he was the one on whom Piatigorsky seems to have had the greatest effect -- nonmusically as well as musically.

"All of us loved Piatigorsky," says Paul Katz, the cellist and founder of the Cleveland Quartet. "Everything about the man was huge -- his physical size, his talent, his charisma, his charm, his wit, his elegant clothes and his beautiful manners. We were all effected by him and all of us -- to a certain extent -- tried to imitate him. But Nick, who was only 13, bought the whole package. He was still a child, and he loved and revered Piatigorsky like a grandfather."

Along with Yo-Yo Ma and Harrell, Rosen is probably the #i best-known American cellist. But though his talent equals theirs, his career, while considerable, has always seemed to lag behind. For a few years after 1978, when he became the only American cellist ever to win first prize in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition, he seemed about to catch up -- only to sink back into the tier of cellists who got called when Ma or Harrell isn't available.

That never seems to have bothered Rosen. "Material 'success' is not the way you measure a life," he says. "Piatigorsky used to say -- and, as in most things, he was right -- that the attitude a cellist should take to his colleagues is that 'if people like it, it's good for the cello.' "

But Rosen admits to some rough going in the middle 1980s, during the break-up of his first marriage.

"Getting divorced is not something I'd recommend for putting people in a good mood," he says.

He married again in 1991, and he and his wife, Margo, are now the parents of two small children. "I'm pleased with life in general," he says.

He is also pleased specifically with a recent upswing in his recording career. After not having made records for about 10 years, John Marks, a Providence, R.I., lawyer and music aficionado, asked the cellist to record for a small label he was about to start. That record on the JMR label -- a collection of short pieces called "Orientale" -- received glowing reviews and continues to sell well. Rosen followed it with equally successful recordings of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky Concertos, Brahms Sonatas and, most recently, a splendid set of Bach's six suites for solo cello.

"For the recordings and for the increased number of my engagements, I owe John [Marks]," Rosen says.

For his unfashionably old-fashioned attitude toward the trappings of modern musical life, however, he owes Piatigorsky.

"Today when so many of us sound so much alike, it always humbles me to think of artists like my teacher, Casals or Rachmaninov -- all of whom were completely different," he says. "You can't explain them except to say that they were great personalities in tone. All talent comes from God, but a few of them have lightning strikes."

Nathaniel Rosen visits the Baltimore School for the Arts today at 2 p.m. Tomorrow he will speak, perform and sign records from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at An Die Musik in Towson. Tickets for his recital at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Shriver Hall are $19, $9 for students. Call (410) 516-7164.

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