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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cello Symphony, Op. 68a (1963) [32’33]. Second Suite for solo cello, Op. 80 (1967) [20’01]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op. 107b (1959) [25’54]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/aBenjamin Britten, bGennadi Rozhdestvensky
Live performances in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire on aMarch 12th, 1964 (world premiere) and February 10th, 1961. mono ADD

Perhaps because this is the third Rostropovich Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 to come my way recently, it was the Britten Cello Symphony that struck me as what makes this disc special. Here is the World Premiere of one of Britten’s finest scores in a blistering, unrelentingly dark performance. While it remains true that soloist and conductor were to revisit the work with the ECO, the documentary value of this performance is immense. Musically, it is an overwhelming experience, with all concerned intent on showing the bleak nature of the score to its fullest. No other cellist since has even approached Rostropovich’s supreme confidence, or his complete involvement with the work’s very ethos.

For these reasons it is easy to forgive the recording’s recessing of the orchestra. Yet even this is not too distracting, and it does not stop one appreciating Britten’s elucidation of his own compositional thought (which comes across here as completely, and powerfully, logical). Even the fast second movement (Presto inquieto) is shifting, shadowy, elusive, like a dream; the Adagio exudes a massive sense of space, the accompanying string chords at the outset seeming to threaten to implode under their own mass. It is just this spatial freedom that contrasts so well with the compelling forward movement of the final movement, a Passacaglia. What a magnificent trumpeter graces the melodic line at the opening!. His/her playing matches Rostropovich for sheer gutsy abandon. To my mind this is work, along with the Sinfonia da Requiem, represents Britten the non-vocal composer at his finest.

The Second Suite was premiered by Rostropovich at Aldeburgh on June 17th, 1968. A great pity the recording details for this account are unknown to EMI (hence the omission in the title above). Can anyone furnish us with the relevant?

Whatever the discographical niceties, there is no doubt that Rostropovich is absolutely hypnotic in this twenty-minute work. Take the first movement, ‘Declamato (Largo)’. Rostropovich’s line just leads the ear through its various twists and turns. Or take the second movement, where there lies amazingly charged silence between the notes. The audience is preternaturally quiet (so much so that when the people present do applaud - and they get straight in there - it comes as quite a shock!).

This Shostakovich First is fleet of foot, more so than the recent BBC Legends with the Leningraders, or the EMI Classic Archive studio DVD with Groves. It has a frenetic quality about it, yet it can also dance. Who is the horn player, though?. Whoever it was, the playing is magnificent (with the one caveat that the ‘whoop’ at the very end from B flat to E flat is barely audible - you can only really hear it if you know it’s there).

The use of real pianissimi works magic on the Moderato and enables the build-up to have real power. The passage with celesta and cello harmonics (around 8’30) makes one hold one’s breath.

After hearing what Slava can do with cello alone in the Britten, it should come as no surprise that the Cadenza is a thing of wonder. Rostropovich’s singing line is there in all its glory, and he works the cadenza to a tremendous climax.

The resolution to the rhythm from the orchestra gives the finale massive ongoing force. This is electrifying stuff, so much so that the barrage from the timpani that closes the work seems the only way to stop the music hurtling on forever. Magnificent.

There is no doubt, of course, that Rostropovich occupies a place as a great artist of the last century. These recordings are proof, if proof be needed.

Colin Clarke

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