“Rostropovich – The Russian Years” is the musical equivalent of a National Lottery windfall. Had anyone told me, five or so years ago, that I would have access to the 1950 world premiere performance of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata with Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter at their spontaneous best, I would not have have believed them. And yet here it is, relatively well engineered for its time and promoting a repertory mainstay with a level of enthusiasm that no subsequent recording quite matches. ‘Great’ world premieres on record are few and far between (Mengelberg in Bartok and Koussevitzky in Roy Harris spring immediately to mind), but some of the best are to be found in this magnificent set. Britten’s Symphony for cello and orchestra, for example, grim as death with blaring Russian brass and timpani that sound like cannon fire – though EMI’s mono transfer hasn’t the presence of its stereo Russian Disc forebear. Similar causes for comparison occur throughout the collection, though readers who have been following the Russian Disc Rostropovich series will be interested to know that some of the performances issued by EMI are different to their ‘unofficial’ predecessors. The Schumann Cello Concerto is a fair case in point, warmly played here and sensitively accompanied under Rozhdestvensky but significantly different to the bald Shostakovich orchestration that David Oistrakh conducts on Russian Disc. Then again, what purports to be the world premiere performance of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto – given on September 25th, 1967 under Evgeni Svetlanov (on the occasion of the composer’s sixty-first birthday) – crops up on both labels. EMI’s is in mono, Russian Disc’s in stereo; both give the same performance date, yet random ‘cough checks’ and close comparisons of certain phrases (most tellingly at the start of the second movement) suggest that they are in fact different performances. What is more, the first-movement timings contrast 14'47'' (Russian Disc) against 13'54'' (EMI), a sure give away. Both are magnificent (no rival version makes quite as much of the last movement’s vicious brass fanfares), but it would be nice to know, if they are different, which one actually came first.
Taking a brief hop through the set finds us starting among encore repertory – luscious Stravinsky (“Parasha’s Song” and music from Le baiser de la fee), a sensitive rendition of Dvorak’s Silent woods, a positively maniacal “Ritual Fire Dance”, Sinding’s Presto (fast – though not as fast as Heifetz in the original violin and orchestra version, 11/94), a ‘world premiere’ of Debussy’s 1882 Nocturne et Scherzo, and sundry showpieces. My favourite track is Prokofiev’s own transcription of his Cinderella Waltz – a mesmerizing performance – but, viewed overall, Rostropovich’s interpretative bear-hugs work best on scores that are big enough to withstand them.
Britten’s Cello Suites, Opp. 72 and 80 are wonderfully sonorous, the Second Suite’s “Giaccona” leading nicely to the similarly varied first movement of the Cello Symphony. The aforementioned Prokofiev Sonata shares the third disc with a fine composite performance of the Symphony-Concerto, the first movement superbly conducted by Israel Gusman (1972), the rest conducted almost as distinctively by Rozhdestvensky (1964). Rostropovich collaborated with Kabalevsky in completing Prokofiev’s Concertino for cello and orchestra (a work that calls on thematic material from the Symphony-Concerto), and Rostropovich’s performance displays the expected tonal lustre.
The Shostakovich concertos disc couples the Second Concerto mentioned above with a forthright 1961 account of the First (under Rozhdestvensky) – impressive as ever, though not noticeably superior to various other Rostropovich performances currently circulating.
The fifth disc is devoted to pleasantly diverting works by Boris Chaykovsky: a 1960 Suite for solo cello, an imaginative Partita for cello, piano, harpsichord, electric guitar and percussion, composed in 1966, and the 1964 Cello Concerto that Rostropovich also champions on Russian Disc (in a different performance). All are world premieres. The sixth disc opens to Villa-Lobos’s haunting “Preludio”, rapturously played (and well conducted) by Rostropovich in 1962 and better-recorded than the Russian Disc performance (included as a part of an undated complete performance of the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, under Kondrashin). Kondrashin conducts Respighi’s lyrical Adagio con variazioni (Russian Disc’s stereo version is under Rozhdestvensky); Honegger’s 1929 Cello Concerto opens in the manner of Gershwin (a connection that Rostropovich’s 1964 performance appears to relish) and Kondrashin returns for the same boldly etched account of Strauss’s Don Quixote (1964) that Russian Disc coupled with Villa-Lobos in inferior sound.
Rostropovich’s courageous promotion of new music sets the theme for the seventh disc, where Fernando Lopez-Garca’s 1965 Concerto da Camera, Lev Knipper’s 1962 Concerto-Monologue for cello, seven brass instruments and two kettledrums and Vainberg’s appealing Cello Concerto, Op. 43 (1948, revised 1956) parade a diverse range of musical styles. The Schumann Concerto turns up on the eighth disc, preceded by the first movement of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Richter and David Oistrakh, recorded just months after the famous EMI sessions under Karajan (7/93). Here, the soloists are placed much closer to the microphones and Kondrashin’s conducting is rather more amiable than Karajan’s. One wonders if the rest of the performance was recorded. Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations round off the disc (a fine 1960 performance under Rozhdestvensky).
Glazunov’s attractive though rather discursive Concerto ballata, Op. 108 shares the eighth disc with an appealing Canzona that Taneyev arranged for cello and piano from a clarinet original. The same disc also includes Miaskovsky’s masterly Concerto in C minor (a fine 1964 performance under Svetlanov). Disc 11 is of considerable historic importance in that sonatas by Shostakovich (Op. 40), Kabalevsky (Op. 71) and Karen Khachaturian (1966) are each accompanied by the composers themselves, whereas Disc 12 opens with a striking Concerto for cello, 17 wind instruments, percussion and organ by the 26-year-old Boris Tishchenko. Next, we hear the cello-and-piano version of Aram Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody (Rostropovich plays the orchestral version on Russian Disc) and the world premiere of an attractive 1967 Cello Concerto by Yuzo Toyama, a six-movement work that sounds like Japanese folk music rendered orchestral by Kodaly.
A keen strain of lyricism runs through the whole of the twelfth CD, where Rostropovich and Alexander Dedyukhin perform Chopin’s G minor Sonata (try the Scherzo’s gorgeous second theme or the brief but fetching Largo) and Polonaise brillante, plus Miaskovsky’s substantial Second Cello Sonata and an extremely appealing set of Five Pieces by Yuri Shaporin. The last disc brings us bang up-to-date with digital recordings of Le Grand Tango by Piazzolla, Ustvolskaya’s gritty Grand Duet (1959) and Schnittke’s Second Sonata (1994), as well as Schnittke’s Epilogue (1993), all accompanied the excellent Igor Uriash.
Phew! Now, that’s what I call a musical marathon! Of course, it goes without saying that many of the modern works were either commissioned by or dedicated to Rostropovich and that we are unlikely to encounter rival performances of the same repertory that are either as wholly compelling or more truly ‘authentic’. As to the playing, everything – or virtually everything – subscribes to a familiar and distinctive interpretative formula, i.e. forceful tone-projection, prominent vibrato (distinctively wide and fast during softer passages), marked dynamic extremes, unstinting demonstrativeness and a comprehensive grasp of the score to hand. Rostropovich metaphorically flings his arms around everything he plays, from a Faure miniature to the fanciful musings of Don Quixote, from Popper’s hectic elves to Shostakovich’s impassioned protests. As with the work of his late friend Leonard Bernstein, you cannot but sit back and submit, though I would not advise attempting to play more than two discs at a time. Take it slowly, indulge every moment, just as Rostropovich himself did.... and, thanks to the art of recording, will continue to do virtually into infinity.
Gramophone, May 1997