Film of Rostropovich playing the cello usually shows something
resembling a man possessed. How he was able to master his instrument
whilst being at the same time so emotionally involved in the
music is a mystery, but most of his recorded performances as
a cellist demonstrate a remarkable degree of self discipline.
Not so, I think, his recordings as a conductor, where a certain
waywardness sometimes crept in. To hear Rostropovich the conductor
in Rachmaninov’s choral masterpiece is irresistible, but the
results are mixed.
The American choir sounds like a fairly substantial group, and
a very accomplished one, clearly very well prepared by their
Music Director, Norman Scribner. There are one or two minor
lapses of intonation, nothing likely to shock, and a few places
where a big, complex chord takes time to “settle”. To my inexpert
ears they seem to be making more than a fair crack at the language,
but they do not sound like a Russian choir, and the listener’s
reaction to this disc may well depend largely on how important
a factor that is.
The choir is recorded at a fair distance in a resonant but not
overpowering acoustic. A little detail is lost from time to
time because of the echo, but the main problem with the sound
is a lack of impact; it sounds soft grained even with the volume
control turned well up. It’s surprising to see Maureen Forrester’s
name as the alto soloist, but she turns in a fine performance;
her bottom range is powerful and often quite tenor-like. Gene
Tucker is excellent. The booklet is no more than a folded sheet
with track details and movement titles in four languages.
The conductor’s view of the work is, largely, uncontroversial.
One exception is perhaps the best-known movement, the sixth,
a hymn to the Virgin. This is marked Andante moderato
in the score, and in addition the composer indicated in his
autograph score that the music was to be kept moving and sung
with lightness. Rostropovich takes this more slowly than I think
I have ever heard it, and its essential simplicity of utterance
is transformed into something cloying. Even within the slow
basic tempo he holds back lovingly at phrase ends, and then
slows down even more, adding an unauthorised low C in the basses,
in the final bars. In contrast, the following movement, marked
Andante, is taken so quickly that the music seems almost
perfunctory, the wonderful bell sounds – the choir singing in
eleven parts! – go for nothing. Once you’ve heard this passage
under Vladislav Chernushenko, and especially the jaw-dropping
crescendo/decrescendo that closes it, any other version
is bound to be a disappointment.
One is occasionally disappointed by poorly managed balances.
The basses, for example, almost always overpower the altos when
the two voices sing the same line at the octave. And I regret
the conductor’s decision to ignore the composer’s instruction
that the work should end quietly. But in the end, and in this
of all works, one misses that certain something that only a
Russian, Baltic or maybe Scandinavian choir can bring. This
is a delicate point, as I should never want to give the impression
that only British choirs can sing, say, Elgar. But although
the bottom Cs and B flats in the bass line are definitely present,
and in tune too, what is missing is that extraordinary firm
foundation that comes from having voices that maintain the power,
as well as the tuning, in the very lowest register. There’s
a lack of local colour in the alto voices too, when compared
to other, favourite recorded performances.
This is a very cheap CD and anyone interested in hearing Rostropovich’s
view of this sublime work shouldn’t hesitate. But other versions
are more satisfying. The Saint Petersburg Chamber Choir is very
fine under Nikolai Korniev, now on Pentatone, and I also very
much enjoy the performance on Melodiya from the USSR Ministry
of Culture Chamber Choir conducted by Valeri Polyansky. But
for that shiver down the spine it’s Chernushenko every time,
especially the second of his two recordings, with the Saint
Petersburg Cappella on Chant du Monde.