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30.4.07

In Memoriam: Hearing Mstislav Rostropovich

On April 27th, Mstislav Rostropovich died in Moscow, age 80. The world mourns one of the greatest cellists and indeed one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Musicians like Rostropovich, Fischer-Dieskau, von Karajan, Sviatoslav Richter, Heifetz, Stern, Horowitz, Bernstein defined classical music for many of us - and are indelibly connected with what might be perceived - wrong or right - with a Golden Age of classical music. Especially of recorded classical music.

Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994, Washingtonians (despite being such a transient town) have a special relationship to Rostropovich - and thanks to his name and his connections did much to bring the NSO greater renommé and leave it in a state where Maestro Slatkin could qualitatively take it to the level it has now achieved. Still, it won't be as a conductor that Mr. Rostropovich will be remembered - and his last concert in Washington, exactly one year ago, is better forgotten if one wishes to remember him as a great musician.

I cannot claim, even now, that I was ever in the Rostropovich fan-club - and I cringed reading The Gramophone Magazine's hagiographic "Rostropovich Issue" in April. But having been a difficult man, someone above all concerned with his own image (Sviatoslav Richter, for example, admired his art but wasn't too keen on Rostropovich's putting Rostropovich ahead of the music), someone who was never shy to posture as 'Shostakovich's Messenger'... all that makes him no less a cellist. He lives on in our memories and, because memories need to be jogged every so often, recordings.


available at Amazon J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
EMI

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"Slava" has left over 100 recordings as a soloist and several dozens as a conductor. A notable absence in the list below is his 1995 EMI recording of the Bach Cello Suites. This is not an oversight but because, for all its fame and acclaim, the recording bores me to tears. Whether he is blisteringly fast or laggardly, he is dynamically limited, listless, and without any hint of dance to be found anywhere. The recording has moments of beauty, but they are few and far between and not even for Bach's sake can I sit through the whole thing to wait for them. For the Suites, one best look (or listen) elsewhere.

available at AmazonDvořák, Cello Cto.,
DG

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That being out of the way, I should like to embrace one of the classic Rostropovich recordings: his Dvořák Cello Concerto under Karajan, coupled on DG Originals with the Tchaikovsky Roccoco Variations. If I had to turn a complete classical music neophyte on to the genre with five CDs, this one would definitively be among them. I feel strongly about Du Pre/Celibidache which is of one piece like molten stone (Teldec) and Queyras/Bélohlávek which is the most felt in the slow movement (Harmonia Mundi), but none quite nudge the Russian/German combination from the top of my list.

available at Amazon Brahms, Cello Sonatas,
DG

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If you know Rudolf Serkin only through (late) recordings, where few really satisfy... least of which his flawed late recordings on Deutsche Gramophon, you might think of him as more famous than great. But there are the Brahms Cello Sonatas with Rostropovich - and perhaps it is the latter's smooth, loving, unabashedly (and wholly appropriate) romantic playing that has Serkin rise to the occasion with an equally brilliant and sensitive account. The marvelous János Starker/György "Create excitement, don't get excited" Sebők recording (Mercury Living Presence) may have a better balance between the musicians - but when the playing is like this, Rostropovich's overly dominant cello is no distraction. (DG)

available at Amazon LvB, Triple Cto., EMI
UK | DE | FR
The Beethoven "Triple Concerto" is a work that doesn't live up to the composer's other concertos, but when it is played well, I gladly listen to it all the same. There are more great recordings of it than I'd want to own, but the super-all-star extravaganza of Rostropovich / Richter / Oistrakh / Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), contrived though it may be, is rightly among the top, especially for those who wish three virtuosic soloists to take the part, rather than a 'piano trio'. Argerich/Maisky/R.Capuçon/EMI, Aimard/Hagen/Zehetmair/Warner, and the Eroica Trio/EMI are other splendid accounts... but for the combination alone, the Russian trio is the one to go with.

available at Amazon DSCH, Cello Cto.1,
CBS/Sony

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An old (1959) but nigh unbeatable classic is the Sony Classics premiere recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1 with Rostropovich and Eugene Ormandy with his Philadelphia Orchestra. Make what you will of Rostropovich's annexing the Shostakovich-halo by constantly reminding everyone of just how strong and great their friendship was, this concerto was written for him, premiered by him, and this first recordig of it catches 'Slava' in his prime as regards (musical) zeal and technical skill.

available at Amazon Britten, Cello Suites 1 & 2, Sonata,
Decca

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Rostropovich laudably championed contemporary music, especially when it was dedicated to him. As are, for example, Britten's three Cello Suites, the first two of which Rostropovich recorded for Decca in the 60s. They are coupled with Britten's Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 65. (The composer proves his incredible mastery of the piano, even if - again - the cello dominates.) For fans of Britten's music at least, this is a 'must-have'.


available at Amazon Myaskovsky et al., Cello Concerto,
EMI

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Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante and Rachmaninov's Vocalise are splendidly served by the - then - seemingly infallible Rostropovich in his 1956/57 recordings. The best reason to own this EMI "Greatest Recordings of the Century" release is the Myaskovsky Cello Concerto, though. It is a masterpiece from a much underrated composer - and until Jamie Walton's recording is released [Ed.: It has been, by now, and it's top-of-the-heap] or Misha Maisky's re-released, Rostropovich is the only good choice, anyway.


available at Amazon Prokofiev / DSCH, VCs No.1,
Warner

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available at Amazon Prokofiev / DSCH, VCs No.2,
Warner

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If these are my favorite recordings with the cellist Rostropovich, there are some that are worth noting where he conducts. His undeniable understanding of the music was, when coupled with outstanding collaborators, enough to overcome his limitations as a conductor. His recordings with Maxim Vengerov and the London Symphony Orchestra of the Prokofiev and Shostakovich Violin Concertos (one of each on two Telarc CDs - lest you find the European Warner/Apex re-issue with the two Shostakovich concertos extracted unto one disc) are superb for either composer - and despite ever-stiffening competition in the Shostakovich (last year alone I've heard excellent new recordings of Daniel Hope, Leila Josefowicz, Arabella Steinbacher, and Sergey Khachatryan) they are still the recordings to judge all others against.

available at Amazon Prokofiev / Rachmaninov, Piano Concertos,
DG

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Another double-Russian/Russian combination is very appealing: Prokofiev/Rachmaninov with Rostropovich/Pletnev. Piano Concertos No.3 of both composers make as compelling a combination as an odd one - and the excellent playing, filled with excitement and delightful accents and exclamation marks, all in stunning sound from DG, make this a most worthy traversal of both concertos, even if you already have them in other versions.

available at Amazon DSCH, Sy.8,
LSO Live

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Of his Shostakovich symphonies (the complete set - largely with the NSO - is available on Teldec), I cannot recommend many when there is always an interpretation that I'd much rather hear. The early recordings are uneven, lacking in the necessary tension, and are often let down by the NSO's lack of will or ability. Any complete set I know is preferable, be it Jansons (EMI), Barshai (Brilliant), Kitajenko (Capriccio), Kondrashin (Aulos/Melodiya) or Haitkink (Decca). The LSO recordings on the orchestras' own label are better, by-and-large, but hugely overrated. His Eighth on that label, though, is a worthy contender. Slowness in that symphony is no detriment to the grim and stark atmosphere and I rate his account above Gergiev (Philips) and Wiggelsworth (BIS), alongside Barshai and Kitajenko and only marginally behind Jansons.

available at Amazon DSCH, Lady Macbeth,
EMI

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If Rostropovich had recorded nothing but Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, he'd have done the world of music - and the composer - a service enough to forget all the gratuitous boasting I've griped about before. With his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya as Katerina Izmailova, this is the recording that put the opera firmly back on the map (though still not firmly enough for the masterpiece it is) and it is the only recording you need to think of acquiring, if you are looking for Audio-only, at least. Any and all of these recordings serve his memory in the best possible way.