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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 [31:50]
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14, (transcribed Rostropovich) [6:45]
Oriental Dance, Op. 2 No. 2 [7:09]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119 [22:38]
Adagio for cello & piano (from Cinderella), Op. 97bis [5:34]
David POPPER (1843-1913)
Dance of the Elves, Op. 39 [2:30]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Pianists: Alexander Dedyukhin (Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Adagio for Cinderella), Sviatoslav Richter (Prokofiev sonata), Vladimir Yamplonsky (Popper)
rec. 1950 (Prokofiev Sonata); 1956 (Rachmaninov); 1958 (Cinderella and Dance of the Elves)
ALTO ALC1373 [76:07]

Alto credits Lev Oborin as the pianist in the Rachmaninov Sonata, and gives the recording date as 1961, but it seems to identical to the one that Rostropovich and pianist Alexander Dedyukhin recorded in 1956 in Poland and which DG have issued and reissued down the years (and Alto mention DG in the credit). Oborin duly gets a note in the booklet, but I have ascribed it above to Dedyukhin, Rostropovich’s frequent accompanist and recording partner at that time. In the note to the DG reissue of 2002 Tully Potter claims that the cellist recorded the whole sonata only once, Dedyukhin being his partner on that occasion, and the movement timings are nearly identical to those here. (My apologies in advance if Alto has unearthed a performance with the great Lev Oborin!)

Whoever is playing the piano on the Rachmaninov sonata there is no mistaking the cellist. Rostropovich had a musical personality the size of a Soviet Republic, and is more than a match for this music. His is an interpretation of immaculate musical taste – for all his lyrical gifts he never indulges the many rich melodies, which are so well crafted they are quite capable of speaking for themselves. Of course he has a great gift for cantabile playing, with his richness of sustained tone and mastery of the long line, and one hears this especially in the andante and in the big tune of the finale. But for all the touching tenderness in his conception he keeps things flowing. Rostropovich’s English pupil, Elizabeth Wilson, has written of his teaching that he told pupils, in relation to this sonata but to other pieces too, “it was essential to get to the spirit of the music through the emotions”. You can hear what he meant – at least in terms of the cello part, which as recorded is about the twice the size of the rather distant piano contribution. This a shame since Rachmaninov was well aware that much of the invention stems from the piano part, and made a point of titling it ‘Sonata for Cello and Piano’, and not just ‘Cello Sonata’.

The Prokofiev sonata, written in 1949, is the truly historic recording here, for the work was new when this recording was made, and it was written for the cellist who premiered it with the pianist, Richter. We can assume therefore that this is pretty close to what the composer wanted (and indeed the cellist advised the composer on aspects of the work while it was in progress, apparently increasing its virtuoso demands). Prokofiev was in hot water with the authorities at the time, and Richter recalls having to play it before party groups such as the Composers’ Union and the Radio Committee before they approved it for its official first performance, which occurred in Moscow on 1st March 1950, the year after the work’s completion. The booklet gives the recording details only as “1950 Melodiya”, and it sounds fine for that date. There is still the balance problem, but it is slightly better than in the Rachmaninov. Above all it sounds tailored for the cellist, which it was, and exploits both his rich sombre low register at the outset, as well as his agility in the faster passagework. This is one of those recordings that effectively serves as an adjunct to the score itself.

The smaller items are variable. Both the short Rachmaninov pieces are beautifully done, especially the Vocalise – here is an illustration of that frequent description of the cello as the instrument which most resembles the human voice. The Adagio from Prokofiev’s Cinderella is less appealing, as the tone gets rather wiry at points. Popper’s swift showpiece Dance of the Elves is the least well recorded of any item here, but jaw-dropping as an illustration of just how many notes per minute it is possible to articulate on a large stringed instrument.

In summary it is Prokofiev’s Op.119, caught still in its molten state by the man it was written for, which will make this disc essential for collectors of cello discs, and those interested in Russian music of the last century. But anyone who admires Rostropovich, or just wonders what the fuss was about, will want to hear it too.

Roy Westbrook

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