Any cellist, musician, enthusiast or casual listener, when listening to a Rostropovich recording, can feel and understand that here is a magician at work.
When asked about his childhood, Rostropovich begins at the beginning, confessing: ‘My mother understood too late that she was pregnant; she cried all over the house. My parents decided she would have to be aborted because she already had a little child. It was a joint decision. So my mother started to fight against me, but as you see, I won this war.’
Perhaps it is this fighting spirit, a defiant attitude and astonishing sense of self that defines each piece and interpretation as quintessentially Rostropovich: timeless and ingenious. In this case, Regis have put together these recordings to create an enigmatic and intimate listening experience.
In Schumann’s Cello Concerto Rostropovich plunges the listener into a world devoid of pretence and falsity, into an open space of musical integrity. Moving between agitation, melancholy and sombre meditation Schumann leads the listener across a wide-ranging emotional arc to a brilliantly affirmative conclusion. With double-stops and a descending fifth - considered to be a nod to Clara Schumann - the second movement contains an intimate duet between the soloist and principal cellist. It communicates as a conversation between a swooning and sparring couple.
Composed in 1849, the Fünf Stücke are five pieces of rich Romanticism and surprisingly contain light-hearted and tranquil melodies. Evoking the pastoral tradition - rather than the hubristic tragic-hero, doppelgänger or femme fatale, so common in Schumann’s oeuvre - these pieces are enchantingly pretty. However there is an uncertainty which lurks in the depths of the cello and this is brilliantly suggested in Rostropovich’s subtle interpretation.
After sharing a box with Britten during the premiere of his First Cello Concerto performed by Rostropovich on 21 September 1960, Shostakovich told ‘Slava’ that he was ‘aching from so many bruises along [his] side’ because: ‘at the concert tonight, every time Britten admired something in your playing, he would poke me in the ribs, and say, “Isn’t that simply marvellous!” As he liked so many things throughout the concerto, I am now suffering!’ Britten and Rostropovich became good friends resulting in Britten composing five masterpieces for the cello: the Cello Sonata (1961), three solo Suites (1964, 1967 and 1972), and the Cello Symphony. On this 1961 recording of the Sonata the two musicians explore the range of textures of which their instruments are capable. The pizzicato-rife Scherzo is intentionally humorous. Britten said to Rostropovich that ‘the pizzicato movement will amuse you; I hope it is possible!’ Cunning interplay and consummate professionalism meet passion and energy in this masterly recording.
Debussy’s Cello Sonata (1915) was composed three years before his death. At this time the composer was suffering from cancer and his daily struggle is reflected in the work’s brevity. Influenced by Francois Couperin in its Baroque structure and scale, this piece is organised in the style of the eighteenth century monothematic sonata. As it slides away from its assertive start, Debussy’s imagination tests the limits of the cello itself. With left-hand pizzicato and spiccato, false harmonics and portamenti, this music overflows with different textures such that the cello seems to morph at times into a bassoon or flute.
This CD offers a particularly fine selection of Rostropovich’s recordings. Debussy’s Serenade from his Cello Sonata alone demonstrates an astonishing ability to create an astounding variety of sounds and evoke an array of emotions. Compulsory listening for the cello aficionado.
Britten discography & review index: Cello sonata