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BBC Legends: Rostropovich

Khachaturian / Shostakovich / Tchaikovsky
Release Date: 09/27/2011 
Label:  Bbc Legends   Catalog #: 50052   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Aram KhachaturianDmitri ShostakovichPeter Ilyich TchaikovskyRobert Schumann,   ... 
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich
Conductor:  George HurstSir Colin DavisBenjamin BrittenYevgeny Svetlanov,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony OrchestraBBC Symphony OrchestraUSSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra,   ... 
Number of Discs: 3 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ROSTROPOVICH Mstislav Rostropovich (vc); various orchestras and conductors BBC BBCL 5005-2 (3 CDs: 213:59) Live: London and Aldeburgh

KHACHATURIAN Concerto Rhapsody (George Hurst, cond; London SO, 12/21/1963). SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No. 2 (Colin Davis, cond; BBC SO, 10/5/1966). TCHAIKOVSKY Variations Read more on a Rococo Theme (Colin Davis, cond; London SO, 6/30/1964). SCHUMANN Cello Concerto (Benjamin Britten, cond; London SO, 7/6/1961). DVO?ÁK Cello Concerto (Evgeny Svetlanov, USSR State SSO, 8/21/1968). TCHAIKOVSKY Pezzo capriccioso (Benjamin Britten, cond; English CO, 6/16/1968). HAYDN Cello Concerto No. 1 in D (Mstislav Rostropovich, cond; London SO, 7/1/1965). SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto No. 1 (Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cond; London SO, 7/7/1965). ELGAR Cello Concerto (Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cond; London SO, 7/5/1965)

Once again, BBC Music has bundled three previously released CDs with an outer cardboard sleeve to sell at midprice discs that are separately issued at full price. Two of the discs in this set have previously been reviewed in Fanfare : in 26:6 Michael Ullman discussed the second disc, containing the Schumann and Dvo?ák concerti and the Tchaikovsky Pezzo capriccioso , while in 30:4 Jerry Dubins covered the third disc, containing the Haydn, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar concerti. As I differ in my evaluations of some of those performances, and the first disc has not been reviewed here, the set as a whole merits attention. Since every piece offered here has multiple alternative recordings by Rostropovich in print, the two key questions for anyone other than a completist collector are whether these interpretations are worth acquiring, and whether they are the cellist’s best recordings of these works. The first question may be briefly answered in the affirmative; addressing the second will be the main purpose of this review.

All of these BBC archive performances date from between 1961 and 1968, when the immortal Russian cellist was at his peak of prowess. The two Tchaikovsky pieces and the Khachaturian Concerto Rhapsody are recorded in early stereo, whereas the remaining items are monaural, but overall there is no great difference in sound quality; while none of the items are up to studio recording standards of the time, all are quite listenable, with varying degrees of audible but not overbearing tape hiss. The soloist is always front and center; the orchestras generally have a warm acoustic with a slight degree of muddiness in the bass register.

In a review in 17:4 of a 1973 live performance of the Khachaturian with Rostropovich (accompanied by pianist Nikolai Petrov instead of an orchestra; EMI issued another such version from 1964 with pianist Aza Amintayeva), John Bauman wrote, “Khachaturian uses all of his standard tricks: Armenian folk-related themes, repetitive writing, and brilliant scoring. The result is a work that should be more widely known than it is.” I agree with the first sentence but not the second, as I find the Armenian composer’s invariable combinations of interminable reiterations of trite folk melodic motifs and orchestral bombast repellant. However, if Khachaturian is your cup of musical tea, this performance delivers the goods—Rostropovich was the work’s dedicatee, and doubtless no one else can match him in it. I suspect, however, that a performance with Svetlanov and the Moscow Philharmonic in a 10-CD Brilliant Classics budget set (which I have not heard) is probably more earthy and idiomatic.

Rostropovich was likewise the dedicatee of both of the cello concertos of Shostakovich and their nonpareil interpreter, given his intimate personal friendship with the composer. Here there are at least four rival versions available: the studio recording for DG with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony; the 1967 world premiere with Yevgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra issued by Russian Disc and EMI, the latter issue still in print as an ArkivMusic reissue; a performance with Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the London Symphony, from the cellist’s marathon run of performances at Carnegie Hall in 1967, all now collected in a six-CD set on the Doremi label; and a 1967 outing with David Oistrakh conducting the Moscow Philharmonic, originally issued by Russian Revelation and still in print (somewhat hard to find, but quite inexpensive) on the Yedang Classics import label. I have not heard the DG recording; of the others, my endorsement would go to the Oistrakh-led performance, which rightly garnered a rave review from Richard Burke in 22:1. That performance happily has both the best recorded sound and the most intense interpretation of the various live outings, having a particularly bleak and sardonic bite to it. While the world premiere under Svetlanov is obviously of great historical importance, it has the worst sound and Rostropovich—understandably nervous, perhaps—is not in his best form. The performance in this set, and that with Rozhdestvensky, rank in between the others, with the latter having slightly better sound.

By contrast, the Davis-led performance here of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme is hands-down the best of any of Rostropovich’s recorded performances of the work, with a passionate intensity that makes other versions—the DG studio recording with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, the live performance on Doremi with Rozhdestvensky and the London Symphony, or the earlier Rozhdestvensky performance in the Brilliant Classics set with the USSR State Symphony—seem sedate by comparison. As always, the cellist plays the then-standard Fitzhagen version rather than Tchaikovsky’s original.

The Schumann concerto is a problematic piece from the composer’s final years, and difficult to bring off successfully. Rostropovich was nonetheless an early and longtime advocate of the score, and with a sympathetic podium partner in Benjamin Britten (who wrote several major works for the cellist), the piece is presented here to its best advantage. Compared to the two EMI recordings (on CD and DVD) with Leonard Bernstein and the French National Radio Orchestra, and the two earlier performances with Rozhdestvensky (the studio version with the Leningrad Philharmonic issued by both DG and EMI, and a live performance with the USSR State Symphony in the Brilliant Classics set), this outing minimizes the longueurs and textural opacity in the orchestral parts and provides greater lyricism and dramatic contrast. It is arguably Rostropovich’s best account of this work, though I remain partial to his early monaural recording (available on DG) with Samuel Samosud and the Moscow Philharmonic due to that conductor’s unusually brisk, take-no-prisoners reading of the score.

This performance of the Dvo?ák concerto is sui generis and indispensable for two reasons. First, apart from the EMI performance on DVD with Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic, this is to my knowledge his only surviving live performance, and by far the superior of the two. Second, as Ullman properly noted at some length in his review, the occasion was fortuitously momentous; only hours before the concert, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the Prague Spring liberalization movement. As can be heard at the start, political protestors briefly attempt to disrupt the concert; in response, Rostropovich delivers his briskest recorded performance with a knife-edge intensity, appropriately supported by Svetlanov, who provides powerfully emotive if decidedly unsubtle support. (The other half of the concert, the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, has just been released by ICA Classics and is reviewed by me elsewhere.) Of the six studio recordings (two monaural, four stereo, all still in print) the cellist made—with Vaclav Talich and the Czech Philharmonic, Boris Khaikin and the USSR State Symphony, Adrian Boult and the Royal Philharmonic, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Giulini and the London Philharmonic (different from the live DVD version), and Ozawa and the Boston Symphony—the first four are infinitely preferable to the latter two, with the Talich holding a special rank. While I would probably choose as an overall performance any of those first four studio versions over this live version, its unique character and circumstances make it an essential acquisition for all admirers of Rostropovich.

In Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso the Russian once again enjoys stellar support from Britten, in a performance remarkable for lightness and clarity of texture and discipline of orchestral ensemble. This is an easy first choice in the cellist’s discography over his three other versions (live outings with the London Symphony on Doremi and the USSR State Symphony on EMI and Brilliant Classics, and a studio version with the Leningrad Philharmonic now issued by Regis).

After the discovery in 1961 of the Haydn C-Major Concerto in a manuscript in Prague, Rostropovich became an immediate exponent of the work alongside the well-known D-Major Concerto. As in his two later studio recordings of both works (on CD and DVD) with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the cellist conducts the orchestra as well as playing the solo part. There are also live performances on Brilliant Classics conducted by Rudolf Barshai, and on Olympia with Bernstein conducting the French National Radio Orchestra. Of the Haydn D Major and the Saint-Saëns concerto on this disc, Jerry Dubins wrote in his review:

“It is one of the most laughable affairs I’ve ever heard. From the way they tear into it, you’d think London was still under the blitz, and everyone had mere minutes to reach the bomb shelters. Treated in the way it is here by R&R, Haydn’s tuneful, if slender, concerto becomes both vehicle for and victim to an utterly ludicrous and histrionic virtuoso display. The same can be said of the Saint-Saëns concerto, its last movement tossed off as if it were Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee . Rostropovich’s technique is truly awesome, but his musical judgment, at this stage of his career, still had much maturing to do.”

I could scarcely disagree more. This performance is indeed faster than the ASMF CD version—8:22, 7:32, and 6:19 vs. 9:54, 8:29, and 6:30 for the three movements—but it is full-bodied, warm-blooded, and not the slightest bit manic, and I find its brisker tempi and lighter touch superior to the rather earthbound studio outing. James H. North panned the DVD version in 30:3 for similar reasons, and the Barshai is not competitive stylistically or sonically, leaving the Bernstein as a worthy alternative.

My disagreement with Dubins extends in equal measure to the Saint-Saëns concerto. Back in 35:3 I had occasion to review an astounding new recording of this work with cellist Gavriel Lipkind, praising it in particular for daring to take an unusually expansive approach that revealed the work to have far more substance than the fluff piece it is sometimes dismissed as. (Dubins also reviewed that recording, and in that instance we concurred completely on its merits.) I had even remarked that Lipkind made my previous benchmark version with Yo-Yo Ma and Loren Maazel seem “comparatively superficial.” Even though Rostropovich and Rozhdestvensky are marginally faster than Ma and Maazel, with movement timings of 5:07, 4:33, and 8:16, there is nothing superficial, fluffy, or reckless about this performance. Instead, it is a superb rendition delivered with a quicksilver fluidity that is exhilarating. Although I have not heard the highly esteemed early studio recording with Malcolm Sargent and the Philharmonia (reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson in 20:6), it is vastly superior to the harsh-sounding Russian studio recording with Gregory Stolyarov and the All-Union Radio Orchestra (on DG) and the live version with Victor Dubrovsky and the USSR State Symphony (Brilliant Classics). I would likewise take it over the CD and DVD versions for EMI with Giulini and the London Philharmonic, with their sodden, listless conducting.

Last but hardly least, there is the Elgar Concerto. Here the situation is markedly different in the Rostropovich discography, as the cellist dropped the work from his repertoire early on; he reportedly decided after hearing Jacqueline du Pré perform it that he could not do it justice. Consequently, he made no studio recording of the work, and only one other live recording survives, again with Rozhdestvensky and the London Philharmonic but this time from Carnegie Hall in 1967. As with the Haydn and Saint-Saëns concertos, Jerry Dubins dismisses this performance as a “travesty,” adding: “They manage to dispatch the piece in just over 26 minutes. I can’t tell you if that’s a record or not, but every other performance I’m familiar with—and that includes Yo-Yo Ma, Starker, Maisky, Isserlis, Robert Cohen, and Lynn Harrell—comes in at somewhere between 28 and 29 minutes.”

Once again, I think Dubins is dead wrong here. To take the matter of performance timings, if one looks at earlier recordings of the concerto, Rostropovich at 26:18 is right in the mainstream. Under the composer’s baton, Beatrice Harrison in the world premiere recording clocks in at 25:11; in the 1945 recording with Adrian Boult—an Elgar authority if ever there was one—Pablo Casals comes in at 27:43, with the timings of the last two movements being virtually identical to those of Rostropovich here. Boult’s 1972 studio stereo recording with Paul Tortelier and the London Philharmonic for EMI is even faster at 27:07, and a live broadcast by that pair with the BBC Symphony (issued on BBC Classics) lasts 27:05. In short, this may be another instance of the tendency for recordings of certain works (the Bruckner and Mahler symphonies coming particularly to mind) to become increasingly slower with the development of recording media that can accommodate longer units of time, rather than evidence of interpretive immaturity or idiosyncracy.

All that said, I do prefer Rostropovich’s 1967 performance, which times out at a Dubins-pleasing speed of 28:04 instead. While neither performance is entirely idiomatic—overt Slavic emotionalism does not translate easily into buttoned-up English reserve—the Carnegie Hall outing is closer to the mark. But both performances are very fine, and leave one regretting Rostropovich’s decision to lay the piece aside; one can only wonder what he would have accomplished in it with another decade of performances.

In sum, then, the must-have disc in this set is the second one, with three top-notch performances. The third disc is also highly desirable, though in each case a worthy alternative exists. By contrast, the first disc is of interest only for the terrific performance of the Tchaikovsky variations. However, since the cost of this three-CD set is about the same as for two of the CDs separately, and the only other performance of the Khachaturian is in a 10-CD set from Brilliant Classics, the purchase of this set as a whole is easily the superior option. Where the contents of this collection have counterparts in the Brilliant Classics and Doremi sets, the performances here (excepting the Elgar concerto and the Shostakovich Concerto No. 2 on Doremi, and possibly the Khachaturian) are the superior versions. This is, therefore, a sine qua non for fans of Rostropovich, and strongly recommended to others as well.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Concert-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra by Aram Khachaturian
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  George Hurst
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1963; USSR 
Date of Recording: 12/21/1963 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
Length: 22 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Concerto for Cello no 2 in G major, Op. 126 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1966; USSR 
Date of Recording: 10/05/1966 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
Length: 33 Minutes 42 Secs. 
Variations for Cello and Orchestra on a Rococo theme, Op. 33 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1876; Russia 
Date of Recording: 06/30/1964 
Venue:  Live  Royal Albert Hall, London, England 
Length: 18 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Concerto for Cello in A minor, Op. 129 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1850; Germany 
Date of Recording: 07/06/1961 
Venue:  Live  St. Bartholomew's Church, Orford, UK 
Concerto for Cello in B minor, Op. 104/B 191 by Antonín Dvorák
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Yevgeny Svetlanov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1894-1895; USA 
Date of Recording: 08/21/1968 
Venue:  Live  Royal Albert Hall, London, England 
Pezzo capriccioso for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 62 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1887; Russia 
Date of Recording: 06/16/1968 
Venue:  Live  Aldeburgh Festival, Snape, England 
Concerto for Cello no 1 in C major, H 7b no 1 by Franz Joseph Haydn
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Mstislav Rostropovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: circa 1761-1765; Eszterhazá, Hungary 
Date of Recording: 07/01/1965 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
Concerto for Cello no 1 in A minor, Op. 33 by Camille Saint-Saëns
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1872; France 
Date of Recording: 07/07/1965 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
Concerto for Cello in E minor, Op. 85 by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Conductor:  Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1919; England 
Date of Recording: 07/05/1965 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 

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