Debussy, Schubert, Schumann

COMPOSERS: Debussy,Schubert,Schumann
ALBUM TITLE: Encore, Rostropovich!
WORKS: Cello Sonata; Arpeggione Sonata; Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102
PERFORMER: Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Benjamin Britten (piano) (1962/69)
CATALOGUE NO: 475 8239 (ADD)


It is apt, in Slava Rostropovich’s 80th birthday year, to remember at least two of the three musical giants he knew so well. Shostakovich may be missing, but Prokofiev as composer and Britten as superlative pianist-partner are both here. EMI’s nostalgia packaging means that we are stuck with the wrong title of Prokofiev’s 1952 masterpiece, ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ (Slava confirmed to me that the work’s ambitions are much better conveyed by its rightful name, Symphony Concerto). The partnership with Sargent doesn’t catch fire in quite the same way as the two Russian performances Rostropovich selected for his 70th birthday commemoration of the Russian years (also EMI). While there is philosophical breadth in the reflective first movement, the central whirlwind leaves RPO trumpet and clarinet struggling, and the final battle is accurate but not quite hairraising. Recording sets the cello slightly back against a clearly-etched orchestra, good when the two mesh in the world of dreams but selling Rostropovich’s most burnished tones a bit short. He clearly believes in the pastoral-melancholy Myaskovsky concerto (which I personally find unmemorable), and it’s good to have the cello-and-piano Rachmaninov Vocalise which accompanied the Prokofiev on its original release.

Decca’s competing series of classic recordings initially presented the Rostropovich-Britten duo’s 1961 selection complete, headed by the Britten Sonata. No doubt the composer would be modest enough to welcome its replacement by their 1968 Schubert Arpeggione Sonata now takes its place in this repackaging (though both could have been accommodated, and it’s a shame to lose the Bridge sonata which originally accompanied the Schubert). Britten sets the unexpected tone by approaching it with the seriousness of Richter; the bittersweet introspection of Schubert’s last years informs that usually comes across as a more modest offering. The shadows of Debussy’s scherzo suggest influences on Britten the composer – unmistakeable in Les Illuminations – and Rostropovich introduces a weird pan-pipe harmonic. Incandescence lights up the later stages of Schumann’s Third Piece, while Rostropovich lends shining nobility to the Fourth – what Elgar would have called a ‘stout and steaky’ quality.


The Elgar Concerto never seemed like a cornerstone of Rostropovich’s repertoire, but it is never less than compelling in a 1965 Royal Festival Hall partnership with Rozhdestvensky; occasional intonation problems and a lack of co-ordination in the final bars are a small price to pay for a range of tone-colours and an unpredictability which make Jacqueline Du Pré seem twodimensional. The Saint-Saëns twinkles in its central minuet, and Rostropovich, directing the Haydn C major Concerto from the cello, launches into it with the panache of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Britten’s cadenzas cast a much-needed shadow in the prevailing sunshine of this irresistible performance. David Nice