WORKS: Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9; Scherzo capriccioso
PERFORMER: LPO/Mstislav Rostropovich
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 65705 2 ADD (1979-81)
Perhaps in anticipation of his seventieth birthday in 1997 or to pre-empt the likely flood of recordings from the enormous Soviet archive that is only now beginning to be tapped, EMI has re-released its back catalogue of material involving Rostropovich. The complete edition comprises 15 CDs issued as five separate items, which are grouped into three categories: Rostropovich as cellist, conductor and accompanist. Ironically, it is in the set of Rostropovich as cellist that the edition’s shortcomings are most marked. There are, of course, some notable triumphs, especially the account of Strauss’s Don Quixote, in which Rostropovich almost magically summons from his cello a most characterful knight, noble and wittily pathetic by turns. Also memorable is Bloch’s rhapsody Schelomo, played with searing passion. However, while the accounts of the other pieces would put most to shame, one hardly feels that this is Rostropovich at his blazing best. For example, the recording of the Dvorak Concerto under Giulini is rather overshadowed by that made with Karajan some years previously. More of a problem is the narrow range of material here: the pieces are all orchestral, and the only modern piece is Miaskovsky’s interesting but underwhelming 1945 concerto. Given that Rostropovich was closely associated with some of the most challenging cello music written this century — by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten and, more recendy, Panufnik, among others -it is a shame that EMI’s cupboard seems so bare.
More satisfying are the discs given over to Rostropovich as conductor and accompanist. The Tchaikovsky symphony cycle with the LPO shows how firmly Rostropovich’s musicianship is rooted in the Russian Romantic tradition. These are expansive accounts, indulgent in the best sense towards Tchaikovsky’s fitful energies and melancholy lyricism. Most compelling of all is the set of songs, sung by Rostropovich’s wife Galina Vishnevskaya. This opens with Mussorgsky’s 1874 Sunless and arrives at Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok, written in 1967 and dedicated to Vishnevskaya: both cycles have that spare and bleak beauty that is the other face of Russian music, and husband and wife together perform with emotional clarity and an affecting intimacy. William Humphreys-Jones