When great artists take their leave in their 80s, like Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, Abbado and Mackerras, it's time to celebrate a life well lived. When they go too soon, the feeling is much more unsettling. Even in the case of an actor familiar to me only through his chameleonic galaxy of screen personas, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the sadness weighs heavy on the soul. But learning from Gavin Dixon's blog of Alexander Ivashkin's death at the age of 65 while I was in Reykjavik over the weekend, with no-one around who knew him to share the burden, was a uniquely disorienting experience.
Having stepped in to take his place on several recent occasions - not least for the huge pleasure and honour of talking to Vladimir Jurowski's conductor father Michail before my greatest concert experience of 2013 - I found that Sasha evaded my concerned enquiries regarding his health. That was disquieting, but I couldn't press, and I put it out of mind. As it turned out he was suffering from that awful disease, pancreatic cancer.
I've known Sasha personally since he arrived here in 2000 to take up the professorship of Russian music at Goldsmiths College, where I've intermittently taught (and would have done so, replacing Sasha, this term had the workload not already been enormous). He was a gentle and humorous person to talk to, though of course intense when we conversed about the great master he knew so well, Alfred Schnittke.
His short monograph on the composer for Phaidon is an absolute model of its kind: how do these Russians, and fellow musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker is another such, write English that's much more stylish than that of so many native academics? Only a few weeks ago I serendipitously picked up a copy of the Schnittke Reader edited by Sasha in its Indiana University Press incarnation (cover of the Russian original pictured above). a priceless reference source.
I took this photo on what was possibly the last occasion I got together with Sasha, chairing a Schnittke discussion which also included the composer's pianist widow Irina (centre), a regular recital partner, and Vladimir Jurowski*. Sasha was of course an entertaining and enlightening speaker; none of us present at his 2003 Prokofiev conference lecture-performance on the differences between Prokofiev's Cello Concerto No. 1 and its offspring, the Symphony Concerto, will ever forget it. He demonstrated how the Symphony Concerto seems more difficult to play than the original work, and yet is much easier because of the collaboration with Rostropovich on natural positioning. And Sasha had his own image of the last frenetic flight into the stratosphere, remembering the Russian image of entering heaven through the narrowest of entrances.
Unfortunately our last exchanges were unhappy ones, over our mutual dismay at the impending removal of the Prokofiev Archive from Goldsmiths to Columbia University. But I prefer to remember Sasha championing the Russian and contemporary repertoire as an outstanding cellist. Gavin Dixon's tribute ends rightly with the haunting epilogue to Schnittke's Peer Gynt ballet, another great dematerialisation for the cellist, this time with tape. Go over, read Gavin's wonderful memories as a Goldsmiths student and listen to that; but meanwhile let me give you instead the second movement of Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano encasing one of the composer's most beautiful melodies. It was a track I also chose for Radio 3 when Slava died - and that happened to be the world premiere performance, with Richter as the pianist and the ailing composer in the audience.
This was the second time I heard Sasha play the sonata with the great Dmitri Alexeev. The first was at the superb 2003 anniversary concert at St John's Smith Square organised by the seemingly indomitable Noëlle Mann. This performance took place - I think I'm right in saying - at her memorial concert, by which time we were also lamenting the loss of Prokofiev's older son Sviatoslav. I miss Noëlle especially and my unthinking first reaction was to phone her to talk about Sasha's death. It only took a few seconds to realise that of course I couldn't.
It weighs heavily with me that of the ten speakers photographed at this 2003 Prokofiev conference talk, four are untimely gone: the collegial Lynne Walker (second from left), Sir Edward Downes, Noëlle and Sasha. Sometimes life doesn't make the sense we think it should.
Sasha's cremation ceremony, open to all, will take place at Mortlake Crematorium, Kew Meadow Path, Townmead Road, Richmond TW9 4EN this coming Saturday, 8 February, at 10.40am.
*who added his own homage in an e-mail this morning (5/2) and I reproduce it here with his permission: 'the loss of Sasha Ivashkin came as a terrible shock to many of us, though some knew he was battling with cancer since last autumn. Sasha was an incredibly kind and generous person, a real all-round musician. I feel really privileged to have known him, if not for too long - I only met him after starting the LPO job in London. His support of all our projects (especially the ones devoted to Prokofiev and Schnittke) was huge and I still have the sound of his cello in that performance of Schnittke's Second Cello Concerto in my ears! I don't think I would ever have understood Schnittke's persona and music so well without having read Sasha's book.'