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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Cello Sonata in F major, Op.5 No.1
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.5 No.2
Cello Sonata in A major, Op.69
Cello Sonata in C major, Op.102 No.1
Cello Sonata in D major, Op.102 No.2
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Variations sérieuses in D minor, Op.54*
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
Sviatoslav Richter, piano*
Recorded Edinburgh Festival, August 1964; *Moscow 1966
EMI CLASSICS DVB 4928489 [128:37]



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Take two of the twentieth century’s greatest instrumental soloists, put them together at the service of Beethoven in a live recital, film it and you get what we have here – an historic musical document that is both important and inspirational.

This single concert was recorded at the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh Festival in 1964 and the West was still getting used to being able see and hear these sensational Soviet artists in the flesh. Until the late ’fifties they had been virtually locked behind the "Iron Curtain".

It was an uncompromising recital, starting for some reason at midnight and consisting entirely of the complete cello sonatas of Beethoven. Those prepared to stay up late for the event probably thought, "This is going to be something I can tell my grand-children about". The audience show their appreciation with prolonged applause before a note is played. This contributes to a little comedy of errors. The two mount the platform, Rostropovich carrying his cello, Richter an extremely dog-eared and heavily sellotaped volume of the sonatas which he then puts on the piano upside down while the page turning man starts to fiddle with something at the side of the piano. They sit. Because the applause will not stop they stand for another bow, getting tangled with the turning man who is trying to get to his chair. They sit again. Silence. Then Richter finds his stool at quite the wrong height so gets up and stands behind it to give the knobs a prolonged twiddle. Then they start to play and at once we know we are witnessing something special. A sudden, intense musical concentration takes over as we are subjected to the beautifully sculptured melodic lines of Rostropovich’s cello in the opening adagio of the F major sonata followed by the piano’s announcement of the first subject of the allegro played with that unmatchable Richterian combination of zip and delicacy.

The recital organised the sonatas in chronological order which, incidentally, provides us with a sweep from early Beethoven via middle period to the threshold of late period. The first two sonatas broke new ground in that they are a genuine dialogue between the two instruments, the piano elevated from accompanying bit part to virtuoso partner with the cello. This was new. The last sonata of the evening (or morning!) matures into what some think the finest of all cello sonatas culminating in a fugato that sends a message that we are approaching Beethoven’s so-called third period.

The performances are filmed, as was the way in those days, with very few camera angles and no fussy panning and zooming to distract. This helps the viewer to share some of the concentration so evident on the stage. Here are two artists very much at one although they cannot see each other – Rostropovich facing the audience, Richter behind him facing away and sideways. But they play bound with a sure interdependence, as if attached by some invisible umbilical chord. Occasionally, at key points, Rostropovich will lean and half glance sideways, and Richter never looks to his partner, being glued to the music at all times. I do not know how many times they had played these sonatas before, although they had recorded them for Philips over the previous three years. The evidence is that these are highly honed performances, great ones in which the pair had arrived at a perfect mutual understanding of each other. There may be interpretative issues that are not to everyone’s taste, for example there is an occasional approach to tempi that might sometimes be associated with Richter, that of taking some fast movements faster than the norm, and some slower ones, slower. But then there are so many instances of passing moments that one cannot imagine any other duo matching, for example the profound, quiet stillness of the start of the great adagio in the final sonata.

As the recital comes to its end after the rigours of the fugato ending of that last sonata, the players immediately rise and in what looks to be an expression of joy, satisfaction and mutual admiration, Rostropovich kisses Richter on the cheek and they bow holding hands. A lovely little moment in the context of a great recital, all caught on film that is a privilege to watch.

The DVD’s "bonus" item, Richter playing Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, was recorded in Moscow two years later. The film quality is poor and the sound dire, but it is a welcome curiosity – Richter never recorded the work commercially. It is a piece that well shows off Richter’s unique brand of virtuosity, power and delicacy.

John Leeman



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