Mstislav Rostropovich – The Complete Decca Recordings [with Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter]

0 of 5 stars

The Sonatas for Pianoforte and Violoncello:
Sonata in F, Op.5/1
Sonata in G, Op.5/2
Sonata in A, Op.69
Sonata in C, Op.102/1
Sonata in D, Op.102/2
Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano
Suites for Cello – No.1, Op.72; No.2, Op.80
Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op.65
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano
Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D821
Funf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)

Sviatoslav Richter (piano) [Beethoven Sonatas]

English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten (piano)

Recorded between July 1961 and July 1968 in various locations in Austria, London and Suffolk

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: August 2012
CD No: DECCA 478 3577 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 18 minutes



The recorded oeuvre of Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) for Decca is significantly less in volume than that for EMI, Warner Classics and, of course, what he documented in Soviet Russia, but it nonetheless represents important documentation of an incredible friendship, that between the cellist and Benjamin Britten. Three of the five discs here focus on a partnership where cellist and the composer-pianist-conductor frequently brought the very best out of each other, focussing on a range of core and fringe repertoire.

The collection is handsomely packaged, each of the five discs housed in a slim-line wallet bearing a black-and-white photo of the recording sessions. Where the set suffers badly is in a quite astonishing oversight, whereby the Beethoven cello sonata cycle is set out in a different order on the discs to that printed on the artwork, which has the five sonatas listed in chronological order; a surprising lapse when so much care has been taken elsewhere.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) performing at the White House, 17 September 1978Once that gripe is done, the music itself and the performances conquer all. In her enlightening book on Rostropovich, Elizabeth Wilson documents how ‘Slava’ was so moved by Benjamin Britten’s introduction to Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata (written for a now-defunct bowed guitar) that he was unable to come in at the right place, and instructed him to play again “with less beauty”. On hearing this account of the work, considerably less-well-known at the time of recording (1968) than it is now, it’s easy to see why the cellist felt that way, for Britten’s voicing is exquisite, his judgment of the sombre mood completely appropriate. Using a much slower tempo than is now the norm, Britten perfectly captures the thoughtful mood. Again and again respective insights are reciprocated, and when the first movement reaches its development section the sound is truly beautiful. Towards the end the partnership slow down considerably, the Allegro moderato becoming more of an adagio, which might be thought detrimental to Schubert’s intentions, but the players’ convictions are so beautifully realised that one might think the composer had asked for exactly what is played. This is the principal interpretative quirk in an account of beauty and poise, Rostropovich enjoying the lighter contours of the dance music, to which Britten responds with delicate staccatos. The Adagio really takes its time but does not indulge too much.

Rostropovich attacks the first of Schumann’s Funf Stücke with gusto, before the musicians pull the tempo around a little, again within the boundaries of taste. There is an exquisite start to the second piece, warmly romantic with Britten’s hushed accompaniment, while Rostropovich brings an intensely lyrical air to the double-stopped central part of the third piece. The Haydn Cello Concerto is a similar delight. Utilising characteristically idiomatic but adventurous cadenzas written for him by Britten, Rostropovich enjoys taking on the orchestra with the quadruple-stopping of the first movement theme, giving the music an unforced grandeur. The recording is on the reverberant side but keeps definition, and the tinkle of a harpsichord adds a metallic edge in faster passages. The cellist’s intensity of line is striking in the slow movement. In the finale there is exciting real cut and thrust.

Disc 2 is devoted to the premiere recordings of Britten’s chamber works for cello, beginning with a fiery account of the Sonata. This is both a duel and a duet, with moments of stand-off in the ‘Dialogo’, the players shadow-boxing before breaking out into the full throated main subject. ‘Scherzo-pizzicato’ is as playful as one could wish, the helter-skelter rush to the finish of ‘Moto perpetuo’ so strong that the listener takes an involuntary step backwards. Most pertinently the performers bring out the sense of concentrated economy becoming evident in Britten’s writing then, his new-found brevity focussing his melodic development.

Britten’s three Suites for solo cello (the first two recorded here) were inspired by the equivalent works of J. S. Bach and are also dedicated to Rostropovich, who famously clinched their commission in an improvised contract on the back of a restaurant menu. Such humour imbued the duo’s friendship but is not found in abundance in the Suites, which are profoundly spiritual. Here they find the cellist’s character in the grand ‘Canto’ introduction, the cantabile of ‘Lamento’, with its brilliant high ‘A’, and the icy harmonics at the end of the ‘Marcia’. Rostropovich shows beyond doubt the technical knowledge of Britten the composer for strings – he was after all a highly competent viola player – with the guitar-like sonorities of ‘Serenata’ and the lontano playing of ‘Canto terzo’ and ‘Bordone’ providing some striking drama, while the two-part writing genuinely sounds like two different instruments. Each sleight of hand is caught in an ideal recording. The Second Suite capitalises on the success and daring of the first, but Rostropovich’s interpretation of it was so expansive that Britten was for a time dismayed with the outcome. Yet so persuasive is the cellist that it is difficult to imagine a better approach; the intensity is almost overwhelming, Britten taking the cello to previously unknown capabilities.

Even now, nearly fifty years after its Moscow premiere, the Cello Symphony remains a difficult nut to crack. The ferocity of the cello-playing is striking, sometimes alarming, but is matched by the ECO, here augmented to symphony-orchestra size. The thwack of the side drum from 3’33” in the first movement, the weight of the bass strings and the frequently sardonic tone of the woodwind – all are examples of Britten the conductor getting an orchestra to play on the edge of the musicians’ collective seats, and at the end of the first movement it surely isn’t wishful thinking to hear the double bass notes as strong gusts of wind on the Aldeburgh sea-front. Rostropovich plays much of the second movement near the bridge to get a tight, eerie sound in the upper register, the tension building further through the Adagio to the culmination of the ‘Passacaglia’, which reaches a powerful and affirmative conclusion.

Listeners may want to take a break at this point, for the Cello Sonata of Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge follows almost immediately, and is no less telling, the wartime work – it was completed in 1917 – searching in its emotion. The strength of feeling in this rendition is once again white-hot, and though it may takes a few hearings to grasp the breadth and depth of this piece the investment is well worth it. Towards the climax of the second movement in particular, Rostropovich keeps a seamless line that moves upwards without flinching, commanding the execution of the longer phrase until he reaches the highest note. Britten is his equal in terms of assertiveness, although the two make the moments of repose stand out too. It is difficult to imagine a better performance of the Debussy. The musicians take the first movement slower than is normally heard, but this aids the expansive cello utterances, and allows Britten to add detailed punctuation. The give-and-take in ‘Sérénade’ is electric, Rostropovich making the most of pizzicato and harmonics, while the finale trips along if slowing considerably at important ‘junction’ points; such moments add to the overall enjoyment.

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97)The otherwise illuminating booklet note gives little away about the circumstances of Rostropovich recording the Beethoven sonatas with Sviatoslav Richter. There is a lot of joy in this music, both performers intent on capturing Beethoven’s spirit of discovery as he bends new forms. The Sonatas of Opus 5 are particularly vibrant in this respect, with solemn introductions that shake off the shackles when the fast music arrives. Richter’s virtuosity is often breathtaking. Both performers are acutely aware of the transitional role of the concise Opus 102 Sonatas. Rostropovich begins the first of these with a middle ‘C’ that drifts in almost imperceptibly. There is a strong sense of the timelessness of ‘late’ Beethoven about the slow movement of the D major Sonata, the approach to the fugue played as if the idea of tempo has been temporarily abandoned. By contrast the faster music is taken by the scruff of the neck, often given considerable forward thrust. The ‘middle’ Sonata, Opus 69, is imbued with warmth from the opening notes, although Richter can be stern. Rostropovich brings an infectious energy to the faster music, and the to and fro between his high register phrases in the finale and Richter’s light, pointed response is one of the interpretation’s strongest points. The balance of the recordings is ideal, reflecting the composer’s designation of these sonatas as being for piano and cello.

What we have here then is an essential document for cello students, with much vivid chemistry between Rostropovich, a simply wonderful musician and inspirational character, and Britten (it’s very instructive to be reminded of his artistry) and with Richter.

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