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Rostropovich Conducts Shostakovich?

Mstislav RostropovichWashingtonians were deprived of a grand celebration of the 100th birthday of Dmitri Shostakovich this month, when the National Symphony was forced to cancel its two-week Shostakovich festival. The reason was the fragile health of the NSO's conductor emeritus, Mstislav Rostropovich: when doctors refused to authorize him to travel across the Atlantic, all but one part of the program (Yo-Yo Ma's performance of the cello concerto) was hastily redone. "Delayed for eventual rescheduling" is the official line, but I have my doubts. Jens reviewed the replacement concerts and was mostly pleased. The most heart-breaking result was the loss of a rare enough opportunity to hear Martha Argerich play live, which I mourned by listening to some of her recordings.

News reached me recently that Rostropovich has conducted another Shostakovich festival, with the Orchestre de Paris, this week and last week. Marie-Aude Roux was there to write a review (Rostropovitch célèbre avec éclat Chostakovitch, November 18) for Le Monde (my translation):

Rarely has an audience expressed such emotion, manifested love and admiration as much for a musician as at the end of the first concert that Mstislav Rostropovich gave with the Orchestre de Paris, in the Salle Pleyel, on Wednesday, November 15. [...] Slava appeared very thin, moving slowly, but still keeping his will intact, which allowed him, barely recovered from a serious septicemia, to conduct the Shostakovich concerts at Pleyel to celebrate the centenary of the Russian composer's birth. [...]

Facing this music, which made his career as a cellist and caused him to abandon composition, Rostropovich was like a mystic before his god. His gestures were barely sketched, his body seemed to float, but his long cellist's hands sometimes traced rebellious bowstrokes in the air the wings of night birds, pulsing in the stridency and thunder at the end of the world or on the beaches of aphasic meditation. The man who with his cello played for the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 had just traversed the last distance separating us from Shostakovich. While Mstislav Rostropovich, visibly exhausted, held the large green score close to himself, turning toward the audience standing as if for a presentation in the Temple, it was impossible not to have the feeling that one was in the middle of experiencing an unforgettable moment.
After the 28-year-old cellist Tatjana Vassilieva, winner of the Rostropovich Competition in 2001, played the first cello concerto, Rostropovich conducted the eighth symphony. The Web site of the Orchestre de Paris also has published Yannick Millon's interview with Rostropovich (my translation):
What is the importance of the first cello concerto, in relation notably to the second, which is played much less?

I come back to Stalin. Shostakovich always held a grudge against him, a bitterness that was more or less open depending on the time. For example, in the first cello concerto, towards the end, there is a very simple passage with the melody in the basses, where the solo cello plays octaves above. One day, Shostakovich told me, "Slava, you must understand that in this concerto, I know every note. Did you not find anything about Stalin in it?" After some reflection, I answered no in all honesty. He then showed me in the score a quotation so well camouflaged that even I, who knew the concerto perfectly, could not decode it. It was a Georgian melody called Souliko, which was supposedly Stalin's favorite song. Shostakovich had hidden three notes from this melody right in the middle of the basses' phrase, while the cellist is playing two times faster above it, making its identification practically impossible.
The second Shostakovich concert, on November 22 and 23, will include the tenth symphony, the five Entr'actes from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and the first piano concerto, with pianist Cédric Tiberghien. Mstislav Rostropovich will conduct.


Garth Trinkl said...

"Delayed for eventual rescheduling" is the official line, but I have my doubts....

Very sadly, I also have my doubts, given that the center of the classical music universe has fully shifted back to an expanded Europe, after a brief post-WWII period when America appeared to have gained parity in performance and musicology with a then more fragmented Europe.

I also believe that Galina Vishnaskaya's 80th birthday celebration in Moscow during that early November period (which was marred, as it was, by artistic differences) was another reason that Maestro Rostropovich felt he could jettison his Washington engagments.

And Rostropovich never could convince the NSO's administration to commit the resources to producing a major project close to his heart -- an NSO North American premiere performance of Vyacheslav Artyomov's 'Requiem to the Victims of Stalinist Terror', from 1986, at the Washington National Cathedral (as Antal Dorati, had earlier, been able to convince the NSO administrators to commit resources for the North American premiere, in 1972, of Olivier Messiaen's Orthodox 'Transfiguration of Our Savior Jesus Christ'.)

jfl said...

I am the first to doubt the truth of anything that comes out of a Russian or an Artistic Administration (anywhere), but I don't doubt the legitimacy of the reasons for Mr. Rostropovich's cancellation. I do, however, doubt - like Garth - that he will be persuaded to come back and 're-schedule' the DSCH festival event. If anything, I don't think (based on believable, if second hand information) that he is in a state of physical and mental health to continue conducting (much less travel extensively) for much longer. Nor am I sure that it would be entirely desirable to hear him conduct DSCH over, say, a M.Jansons or Barshai (obviously) or Kitajenko (!) etc.

Still, we hope that Mme. Argerich will grace D.C. soonest!