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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36a (1878) [41’27].
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op. 107b (1959) [27’19].
bMstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
Live performances from aRoyal Albert Hall, London, on September 9th, 1971 and bUsher Hall, Edinburgh, on September 9th, 1960. bmono ADD

What might be seen as perhaps a curious coupling is vindicated by the searing intensity of both performances. Rozhdestvensky’s affinity with the sheer energy of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is here viscerally documented in a performance that shows just what the Leningraders are made of.

No doubt as to venue, either, with acres of ‘space’ around Tchaikovsky’s fateful fanfares that blaze fiercely before Rozhdestvensky calms things down to the most suspenseful silence. And how miraculously the strings creep in at 1’25. Yet the momentum is not disturbed a jot. The miracle of this performance is that within Rozhdestvensky’s far-sighted interpretative approach, there is so much to enjoy from the orchestra’s individual players. Try the clarinet at 5’06, which positively drips with character. Rozhdestvensky is not afraid to take us into the world of the ballet at times; he is even less afraid to drag us out of that cosy place. Brass play preternaturally together, and have you ever heard the like of the trombones at 12’09, I wonder? Thunderous and ominous, they seem to come from a world beyond and are enough to instil fear into the heart of the most ardent anti-Tchaikovskian. Rozhdestvensky consistently sheds new light on orchestral shadings; only at the end of this first movement is there a suspicion that the brass are pushing the conductor forwards, not the other way around (17’33 onwards).

There is a goodly gap between the movements (some seventeen seconds), but it could be argued it is a necessarily long one after the Russified Sturm und Drang of the massive opening statement. The acidic oboe that opens the ‘Andantino in modo di canzone’ is entirely characteristic of its geographic origin. It is what happens when it finishes that is really interesting, however, and the strings take the melody. Rozhdestvensky, however, foregrounds the clarinet counter-melody (in Schoenbergian terminology, the melody, or Hauptstimme, becomes the Nebenstimme). The result is, unpredictably, almost unutterably beautiful.

Far from seeing this movement as an interlude, Rozhdestvensky thinks more in monumental terms, his pacing providing gripping results towards the end. All of which contrasts with the third movement which really is a visitor from the Bolshoi Ballet, with woodwind tripping along as gaily as can be (and listen to just how nimble that famous piccolo line is at 2’33-2’35!).

The finale begins with an explosion of light and, in terms of sheer voltage, is as electric as the best of them. There is a sag in momentum around 2’40, though, where brass are not as bullet-like as the score would seem to demand. Yet this is high-octane Tchaikovsky and the Prommers’ screams and yells at the very end (which begin before the music has finished) are for once justified.

Rostropovich exudes supreme confidence right from the very first four-note statement of the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto. Rozhdestvensky accompanies perfectly. He is right there with his soloist, always (and listen to the impatience of the string figures around the one minute mark!). Spiky woodwind, with very cuttingly-toned clarinet around 2’25, overlay an acidic edge to proceedings. The solo horn with Russian vibrato is excellent, centring every note in the important horn/solo cello duet. Rostropovich saws away enthusiastically in his ‘accompaniment’, taking over the high melodic line with searing intensity.

Rostropovich converts his cello into a sort of stringed voice in the Moderato (the concerto’s longest movement), bringing a real sense of stillness, and some icy harmonics towards the end. The Cadenza is gripping from first note to last; even more so than on the DVD of the same cellist in this work, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves on EMI Classic Archive DVA4901209 (Review). Marvellously raw and energetic woodwind at the beginning of the finale set in motion a helter-skelter ride made all the more nightmarish by a shrieking piccolo. Rozhdestvensky lays the orchestral canvas bare here, and the effect is most disturbing. Perhaps the very ending lacks the last ounce of climactic bite, but nevertheless this is a memorable account.

This remarkable disc will bring many rewards. Repeated listening has already brought new insight to the fore each time.

Colin Clarke

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