Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809) Cello Concerto No. 1 in C, HVVIIb:1 [22:13]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 33 (1872) [17:56]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85 (1919) [26:18]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozdhestvensky (Saint-Saëns and Elgar)
BBC BBCL 4198-2 [67:35]

This disc in the Great Performers of the Twentieth Century series presents BBC recordings from 1965. On offer are three staples of the cello repertoire from the Classical and Romantic periods. All three works are recorded in mono, but the ear soon adjusts. For the soloist, the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the works progress from those he later recorded in the studio more than once - Haydn and Saint-Saëns - to a work that he never recorded commercially: Elgar. The interest for Rostropovich mavens is therefore mainly in the last work, and it is for them that this disc will prove of most interest.

The Haydn C major concerto is a work thought to have been lost, a manuscript copy being discovered in Prague only in 1961. In this recording Rostropovich conducts the London Symphony Orchestra as well as playing the solo part - surely one of his earliest outings as conductor. This is the easier of the two Haydn cello concertos, and Rostropovich surmounts what technical difficulties the work presents in effortless style. The first movement sets off briskly, even with a touch of manic gaiety. From the soloist’s opening statement, chords are played with wonderful cleanness, and the rapid bowing in the development section is beautifully even. Benjamin Britten’s cadenza presents another point of interest. The Allegro molto in the Rostropovich performance, however, is a bit rushed, with the orchestra sounding as though they are scrambling to fit all the notes in.

Jacqueline du Pré recorded this work in 1967, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. A comparison between her times and those of Rostropovich is instructive. His performance is quicker overall than du Pré’s, most of this coming in the Adagio:-

Movement
Rostropovich
du Pré
Difference
1. Moderato
8:32
9:30
0:58
2. Adagio
7:32
9:42
2:10
3. Allegro molto
6:19
6:45
0:26

Rostropovich’s tempo is more appropriate in the slow movement, which du Pré takes at something approaching Molto adagio. Overall this performance is less Romantic than that of du Pré. The tow cellists take the finale a tick slower, which gives the English Chamber Orchestra time to play more stylishly than the LSO. The du Pré performance benefits from a warm stereo recording.

Those wanting Rostropovich in this repertoire might also like to audition his 1964 recording of the two Haydn concertos with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and Rudolf Barshai in the Brilliant Classics Rostropovich Edition, or more economically, the 1977 recording of the same concertos with the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields. This recording is available in the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series.

Rostropovich had recorded the Shostakovich Concerto no. 1 with Gennady Rozhdestvensky four years earlier in Moscow. Their collaboration on this recording begins with the concerto no. 1 by Saint-Saëns. This is again one of the less technically demanding works in the cello repertoire. Its popularity with audiences rests on its accessible, tuneful nature and the effectiveness of the solo and orchestral writing.

Rostropovich again takes what technical demands the work presents in his stride. The Allegretto con moto is played with particular warmth, and Rostropovich is happy to share the limelight with the various wind solos. Throughout one delights at the depth of tone. His performance is again on the brisk side, as a comparison with Du Pré’s 1969 recording (New Philharmonia Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim) shows. Rostropovich gets through the work in 17:56, du Pré taking 20:06. As these timings indicate, du Pré is more inclined to linger over details, and her playing also features more of the expressive slides for which she was renowned - or notorious, depending on your point of view.

This is the middle of Rostropovich’s recordings of the Saint-Saëns first concerto, all made with British orchestras. The first, from 1956, was with Malcolm Sargent and the Philharmonia. The last, with Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, dates from 1977; another Great Recording of the Century; it is coupled with an effective performance of the Concerto in B minor by Dvořák.

The disc finishes with one of its undisputed masterpieces, the Concerto in E minor by Elgar. This concerto is suffused with a sense of loss for the Edwardian world shattered by the Great War, which haunts its pages in the martial music of the second and last movements. There is also a sense in the more elegiac episodes of Elgar’s grief for the fallen.

Rostropovich never recorded the Elgar concerto commercially, feeling that du Pré brought a greater insight to the work. Her recording, with John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, was made only a few months after that by Rostropovich. The timings indicate a somewhat different view of the work:

Movement
Rostropovich
du Pré
Difference
1. Adagio – Moderato
7:05
7:59
0:54
2. Lento – Allegro moderato
4:01
4:28
0:27
3. Adagio
4:09
5:12
1:03
4. Allegro – Moderato – Allegro non troppo
11:03
12:16
1:13

Rostropovich’s sonorous opening chords signal that this will be a full-blooded interpretation. The long-short-long first subject of the Moderato section sounds a little four-square, lacking that sense of someone walking easily through unfamiliar territory. Rostropovich plays the Lento introduction to the second movement close to the bridge to give a sense of excitement and agitation. The repeated semiquavers of the Allegro molto have a wonderful clarity. In the following Adagio, Rostropovich uses more rubato in the lamenting solo line than elsewhere. The “war machine” music of the final Allegro and Allegro non troppo is brought vividly to life with a touch of manic Russian intensity. A moment where Rostropovich’s intonation falls short of the note reminds one that this is an unedited live performance. This movement is played with tremendous brio and passion, and the LSO and Rozhdestvensky are unfaltering in support.

Rostropovich’s playing is wonderful throughout; the double-stops and arpeggio passages are particularly awe-inspiring. One misses du Pré’s subtle rubato, however, and her inwardness, particularly in the Moderato section of the finale. The timings above indicate how tenderly she lingers over these wonderful pages.

Overall this recording does not displace du Pre’s classic account with Barbirolli, now available as a Great Recording of the Century, or the more recent performances, such as Julian Lloyd Webber’s or Natalie Clein’s, in similar vein. This performance, however, has many strengths. Principal among these is its passionate engagement with the score; Rostropovich and Rozhdestvensky play this work as though it was a matter of life and death. As an “alternative” account of the work it is quite fascinating.

A disc for Rostropovich and cello mavens, the performance of the Elgar concerto is a fascinating document of the great Russian cellist’s full-blooded engagement with this work.

Guy Aron

Full-blooded engagement.

1This work, together with the Saint-Saëns and Elgar concertos, are available in the EMI compilation Favourite Cello Concertos 7 63283 2