BBC Legends – Mstislav Rostropovich

0 of 5 stars

Cello Concerto in C
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85

London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) [Haydn]

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky

Recorded on 1 (Haydn), 5 (Elgar) & 7 July 1965 in the Royal Festival Hall, London

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: December 2006
BBCL 4198-2
Duration: 67 minutes

Now that Mstislav Rostropovich has almost exclusively taken to conducting, it is easy to forget that in the 1960s and 1970s, when the world was awash with great cellists, he had a very high profile as a soloist, becoming an almost Casals-like figure.

This BBC Legends disc is of particular interest in that it features Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a work Rostropovich performed rarely, and never again after he heard his pupil Jacqueline du Pré play it, making it an essential acquisition for Rostropovich’s admirers, Elgarians, performance historians and cello aficionados alike.

The disc’s desirability is further enhanced by recorded sound that is better than on any of the numerous pirate issues that have appeared, while the quality of the orchestral playing and conducting surpasses that of the all-Russian performance on Revelation.

The Haydn is a tough, not to say aggressive, performance, with plenty of attack, portamento and vibrato. In the first movement the tempo is sprightly, the style conversational yet urgent; the slow movement is suitably relaxed and the last movement has speed and panache. Rostropovich, who plays Benjamin Britten’s cadenzas, uses a chamber-sized orchestra, which, after an untidy start, offers crisp support.

Saint-Saëns’s First Concerto is full of quasi-melody, big gestures and much empty passagework – essentially pleasant background music. Rostropovich gives it his all; there is total commitment in every bar and he never dawdles. Similarly, Rozhdestvensky gets the orchestra to play with precision and passion. You probably won’t hear a better performance.

Which brings us to the Elgar. For me, the definitive recording is now du Pré with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli captured live in Prague (Testament SBT 1388), but there are many ways of skinning a cat and Rostropovich and Rozhdestvensky are certainly compelling. The opening is controlled and moderately paced, without any great tempo changes. What is immediately apparent is the similarity in tone between Rostropovich and du Pré; both have a powerful, singing richness and intensity of sound. In the movement proper the Russian achieves his ends via dynamic and tonal shading and rubato. It is controlled but committed playing. In the scherzo, the tempo is fast, the soloist’s bowing is exact and he imbues the music with a Prokofiev-like spikiness and fantasy. The slow movement flows by as an elegy. In the finale the attack, at a fast tempo, is superb. Rozhdestvensky secures incisive playing from the LSO with some exceptional rhythmic highlighting from the timpani in the first movement. As a performance this is totally different from the du Pré yet equally valid – although it must be said that the combination of that young cellist live with the greatest of all Elgar conductors is, to put it mildly, gobsmacking!

Sound-wise the disc is very good, with little distortion and a good dynamic range. The tapes come from the British Library and have obvioulsy been well stored. Perhaps the BBC could go and have a chat with them and learn something!

So a very valuable disc that I would urge all those interested in the art of interpretation to buy. The only regret is that it demonstrates how, as is so often the case when an instrumentalist takes to the podium, the world lost a great cellist while gaining a conductor who isn’t in the same class.

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