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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    



Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, B191.
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33.
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini.
[ADD] Recorded in No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road on April 29th-30th and May 1st, 1977.
EMI GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY CDM5 67593-2 [62.39]

 

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The Dvorák Cello Concerto has always been close to Rostropovich’s heart. He has recorded it with an impressive roster of conductors: there is, of course, the famous version with Karajan, but also accounts with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic under Talich (put down when Rostropovich was 25 years old) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Boult, amongst others. He was in his fifties when he recorded the version under consideration here, originally on ASD3452, young enough to retain the fire and old enough to temper it with maturity: the ideal balance, one might say.

Rostropovich’s playing is simply stunning, and Giulini’s accompaniments are characteristically dignified and always attentive to his soloist’s needs. Combined, they summon up perfectly the quasi-nostalgic sound world of this music. The London Philharmonic at the time of recording (1977) was at a high point in its history, and how it shows. Textures are glowing (and expertly balanced and moulded by Giulini’s expert ear) and solo contributions are uniformly impressive: how to single out any one is a problem. Perhaps the lyrical horn solo in the first movement exposition, or the woodwind contributions in the second movement?.

The exact blend of musicianship present in Rostropovich seems ideally suited to this piece. All the moments of lyrical magic one might expect from this source are here in abundance (the slow movement is mesmeric), but also the virtuosity displayed is jaw-dropping and yet at once completely at the service of the music. Tempi, as in all great performances, persuade one that they could not be otherwise (for example, the ‘ma non troppo’ qualifier to its ‘Adagio’ is heeded so the music flows easily and naturally). Rostropovich’s playing reaches dizzyingly impassioned heights in the Finale. In fact, the only real reservation about this account of the Dvorák comes with the recording quality (David Mottley was the producer, Neville Boyling the engineer). Despite being typical of its period in its inviting warmth (though with a slight muddying of detail in the lower registers), there is some uncomfortable spotlighting of solo contributions: listen to the bassoon countermelody beginning at 6'50 in the finale, for example.

Rostropovich himself chose the Saint-Saëns as the coupling. His love of the piece comes through strongly. Possibly this was a controversial choice, but the piece is not without its fair share of influential fans. Shostakovich referred to it as the best of the ‘great’ concertos for balance, length and shape and reputedly said he preferred it even over the Dvorák (despite its charms, I cannot agree!). Casals was another great performer who held the piece in his repertoire.

The Cello Concerto No. 1 was premiered in 1873 by Auguste Tolbecque at the Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris. Rostropovich actually made his concerto debut with this concerto at the age of 13, so maybe that accounts for its special place in his affections. The score is full of joy with life, from the arresting opening (a single orchestral chord followed by an amazing flourish for soloist) through the minuet-like Allegro con moto with its polished accompaniment over which Rostropovich floats heavenly - this movement is delightful - to the more shifting moods of the finale. In lesser hands, one might be tempted to be dismissive of this concerto, but for its duration Rostropovich refuses to let negative thoughts even enter one’s head. The coupling of these two concertos is a remarkably successful one, and one which makes a straight play-through of the disc a positively life-enhancing experience.

Colin Clarke

 

 


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