This set fulfills the first three-quarters of the old saw “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”—it only needed to print the booklet and tray cards with blue instead of gray for a background color to complete the saying. So far as I can tell from my research, this is the first release of the performance of the Cello Concerto No.2, while that of the Concerto No.1 conducted by Gauk has been favored with one previous release (on the obscure Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatoire label, in 2011). By contrast, the Cello Concerto No. 1 with Kondrashin and the Cello Sonata have both enjoyed at least three previous releases apiece (that of the Concerto including an old Everest LP). It should be noted that Supraphon erroneously claims everything but the Sonata to be a first release.
As the dedicatee of both concertos, and as the dominant cellist of the second half of the 20th century, Rostropovich rightly dominates the discography for those two works. For the Concerto No. 1 he has eight different recordings extant (two studio and six live, one of the latter on DVD); for the Concerto No. 2 he has seven (one studio and six live):
Philadelphia Orchestra (studio)
Leningrad Philharmonic (Edinburgh Festival)
London Symphony 1961 (DVD)
London Symphony (studio)
BBC Symphony 1966
London Symphony (Carnegie Hall)
Moscow State Philharmonic
RAI Symphony Turin
Boston Symphony (studio)
A couple of discographic notes are in order. For reasons unknown and unconvincing to me, a review in the online DSCH Journal (see dschjournal.com/reviews/cd_reviews/rvs15op107.htm) claims that the Kondrashin performance is actually with the Moscow Philharmonic from some time in the early 1960s. Also, Brilliant Classics has issued the Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Philharmonic performance (officially released by EMI) in both 10-CD and three-CD collections devoted to the cellist with the orchestra misnamed as being the USSR State Symphony. Finally, one may be surprised to see that, apart from the two studio recordings with Ozawa, all of these recordings date from within a narrow nine-year time span. This is a result of two factors. First, the cellist’s public performance and studio recording activities were immediately curtailed by Soviet authorities when in 1970 he dared to provide Alexander Solzhenitsyn his private dacha as a home after the latter was evicted from his apartment. (As an expression of gratitude, one of the author’s first acts after he was exiled to the West, and gained access to millions in royalties from book sales being held in Swiss banks, was to buy his friend a Stradivarius cello.) Second, after Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were allowed to emigrate to the West in 1974, he increasingly devoted himself to conducting rather than playing the cello, and made relatively few instrumental recordings thereafter.
For someone who is not a Rostropovich or Shostakovich completist, the key question is: “Which performances are the best?” For the First Concerto, the three least satisfying performances are the studio versions with Ormandy and Ozawa, which come across as flabby and lacking in dramatic tension when compared to the live accounts, and the Kondrashin performance featured here, which has some substandard orchestral playing and finds both soloist and conductor less fully engaged than in the superior alternatives. The other five all rank highly, and preferences between them may be subjectively governed by one’s preferences on smaller points. Heretofore my two favorite versions have been the two Moscow Philharmonic performances conducted by Rozhdestvensky and Oistrakh; the former has sound that paradoxically is at once slightly clearer in detail, but also more distant and resonant. I would rank the Leningrad Philharmonic performance just behind these; it has slightly inferior though still quite decent monaural recorded sound. The DVD version is of course sui generis as a video document; it too is a very fine performance and well recorded, but not quite as idiomatic as the Moscow versions with Rozhdestvensky and Oistrakh.
Where, then, does that leave the Gauk performance? It is one that stands apart, and is the major reason for acquiring this set. Recorded only two days after the world premiere in Leningrad under Yevgeny Mravinsky, the sound is a bit tubby and fuzzy, though still quite listenable. Its importance lies in that it captures a performance by Rostropovich quite unlike any of his other versions. When one thinks of this work, adjectives such as “ironic,” “jaunty,” and “cheeky” are normally what spring to mind, in keeping with its dominant E?-Major tonality. Here, however, even the most seemingly upbeat passages are played with a grim, even savage, fierceness that belies all nominal optimism. One is reminded of the statement attributed to Shostakovich in the controversial Solomon Volkov memoirs regarding the hollow triumphalism of the Finale to the Symphony No. 5: “It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’” The analogous recording that comes to mind is the fabled March 1942 Berlin Philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Wilhelm Furtwängler—there is the same sense of extreme desperation generating a performance of hyperbolic expressive intensity. If in each case one hesitates to recommend the performance as a desert-island choice for that artist (Furtwängler or Rostropovich) due to its very exceptionalism, there is at the same time a profound obligation to hear that performance as a uniquely revelatory document.
As for the Second Concerto, far less need be said. This performance is disappointingly weak and unfocused, far inferior to virtually any other version. Easily the two best choices are the performances conducted by Oistrakh and Rozhdestvensky, with perhaps the tiniest edge to the former; all others lag noticeably behind. (The Yedang Classics CD of these two concertos with Rostropovich and Oistrakh, which also includes a performance of the op. 109 Satires with Vishnevskaya, deserves “Classical Hall of Fame” status and is indispensable to any collection of the composer’s music or the cellist’s art.)
While the Cello Sonata has about as many recordings in print as does the First Concerto (over 50 for each), it has only two featuring Rostropovich: this one—released at least three times previously, and variously dated to 1957, 1958, and 1959—and the justly famed 1961 performance released by Decca with Benjamin Britten at the piano. While both are superb, the presence of Shostakovich himself at the piano adds an extra cachet of authenticity to the interpretation here. (There is also the composer’s earlier studio recording on 78s from 1946 with Daniil Shafran, but while that is very fine in its own right, it is easily superseded by this one both sonically and interpretively.) The performance with Britten has better recorded sound; that here is somewhat boomy. However, the composer’s piano playing is more varied and pointed in differentiating moods than is Britten’s. This performance is also more fleet; in the booklet notes to the EMI release Rostropovich is quoted as saying, “We took some passages rather on the brisk side; the weather was beautiful and Shostakovich was in a hurry to visit someone in the country.” Thus do ephemeral accidental circumstances shape interpretations preserved for the ages!
In closing then, a split verdict. For fans of Rostropovich and Shostakovich, this set is urgently recommended as a must-have item for the Gauk performance of the First Concerto, and also for the Cello Sonata if you don’t already have that from EMI or another previous release. The contents of the first CD, however, are only for avid completists. FANFARE: James A. Altena
Concerto for Cello no 2 in G major, Op. 126by Dmitri Shostakovich Performer:
Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello)
Prague Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1966; USSR
A memorable 1959 Russian reunion.April 10, 2014By L. Labra (Oakland, CA)See All My Reviews"In spite of the recording year still has the vigor and precision characterized by both, Rostropovich and Shostakovich."Report Abuse