A Former Student Details 10 Essential Rostropovich Recordings

By Elizabeth Wilson

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1. Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond.

Dvořák Cello Concerto, Saint-Saëns Cello
Concerto No. 1
(EMI, 1977)

In 1950 Rostropovich won the Hans Wihan Competition in Prague playing the Dvořák Concerto. This concerto became central to his repertoire, and he esttablished a highly individual and emotional interpretation, with a wonderful palette of colors, and total unity of structure. It was the concerto Rostropovich chose to play at his debut with orchestras in Britain and in the United States, and also at his farewell concert as a cellist in Vienna in June 2005. He made seven studio recordings of the work: The 1952 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, Václav Talich conducting, was of great importance for helping him form his fundamental understanding of the work. I grew up with the 1957 recording—with Adrian Boult conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—which I adored. But I have chosen another recording as essential. It was made in London with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra 20 years later. In this enormously spacious and passionate interpretation, Giulini admirably matches Rostropovich’s intensity of emotions, which range from the grandly heroic to gently lyrical, where rhetoric blends with haunting nostalgia.

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2. Henri Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto:

“Tout un monde lointain …”

Orchestre de Paris, Serge Baudo, cond.

Great Recordings of the Century (EMI, 2002)

Of all the new concertos written for Rostropovich, Henri Dutilleux’s and Witold Lutoslawski’s were the most innovative. Dutilleux’s imaginative sound world mirrors the sensuous luminosity of Baudelaire’s verses, which serve as epigraphs to each movement. Rostropovich’s cellistic fantasy is stretched to the full, whether he is acting in the capacity of rhetorical orator, poetic narrator, inspired improviser, or technical wizard. His intuitive understanding of the concerto is founded in his own study and knowledge of composition as well as his unmatched instrumental skill.

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3. Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote

Ulrich Koch, viola; Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, cond.

Richard Strauss 1884–1949 (EMI, 1987)

I rarely saw Rostropovich listen to his own recordings, but once when he was visiting my home, he asked me to put on the LP of Strauss’ Don Quixote with Karajan. Listening together, I witnessed him reliving the score, with his imaginative impersonation of the chivalrous knight; his wild and strange fantasies and delusions, sparring with enemies real and imaginary with unbounded gusto and spirit; his dreams of love for the beautiful Dulcinea; and the inspired final variation, with its nostalgic overview of the life to which the Don was bidding farewell. The gorgeously lush sound of both orchestra and cellist is nothing short of glorious.

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4. Frank Bridge: Cello Sonata

Benjamin Britten, piano.

The Complete Rostropovich Recordings
(Decca, 2012)

Rostropovich learned Frank Bridge’s sonata at the request of Benjamin Britten, himself a one-time student of Bridge. This dark and passionate sonata was composed at a time when Bridge was subject to the expressive influences of Alban Berg, although harmonically the work sometimes seems almost Scriabin-esque. Britten and Rostropovich’s inspired performance helped to draw attention to this magnificent sonata, and place it firmly in the repertoire of cellists. I particularly love the improvisational quality of the second movement, which Rostropovich enhances with an enormous palette of color and nuance. Throughout one is aware of the tangible fragility of the interchange between two supremely sensitive musicians. And Britten, though usually a performer of his own works or Schumann and Schubert lieder, proves here to be a wonderful virtuoso pianist.

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5.  Stravinsky/Dushkin: Divertimento:

Pas de Deux and Variation & Coda
(from La Baiser de la fée) adapted by
Rostropovich

Mstislav Rostropovich Complete EMI

Recordings (EMI, 2008)

Rostropovich is usually identified as the creator of new repertoire and supreme performer of the large-scale major repertoire pieces, but he also loved playing short miniatures, and wooing new audiences with easy, entertaining music. He wanted everybody to love the cello! As he traveled the world, he would collect ideas about such pieces, and make transcriptions himself. In a visit to the US in the late 1950s, he heard Divertimento, an arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet La Baiser de la fée for violin and piano by composer Samuel Dushkin. Rostropovich decided he would adapt the final movements for cello. This recording from a live concert at Moscow Conservatoire’s Grand Hall, with his wonderful regular pianist Alexander Dedyukhin, vividly conveys the vital excitement that audiences came to expect from a Rostropovich performance. His vivid enjoyment and an almost reckless excitement are tangible. Indeed, a lot of the time he is playing in the same register as the violin, almost impossibly high on cello.

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6. Boris Tchaikovsky: Cello Concerto

Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, cond.

The Russian Years, 1950–1974 (EMI, 1964)

This recording comes from the world premiere, given at Moscow Conservatoire’s Grand Hall during Rostropovich’s mammoth cycle of 11 concerts during the 1963–64 season, when he played over 40 cello concertos. Boris Tchaikovsky had been a fellow composition student, and had already written a suite for solo cello for Rostropovich. This highly original concerto in four movements was a particular favorite of Rostropovich’s. He adored the variety in its moods, and its marked theatrical element. Indeed, the concerto is lots of fun, yet also “advanced,” displaying multiple influences. The concerto is distinguished by its sense of fun,  yet also makes a passing nod to the avant garde. Among its multiple influences, one can detect Stravinsky and Messiaen, as well as features of jazz, dance rhythms, and popular song. The work’s  unusual and beautiful scoring earned praise from no less an authority than Shostakovich.

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7. Benjamin Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra

English Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin Britten, cond. 

The Complete Rostropovich Recordings (Decca, 1964)

The chapter of Rostropovich’s life associated with Britten was truly extraordinary, and resulted in five new works for cello. The second of them, the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, was premiered in Moscow in 1964. It is a work of enormous complexity, which requires the cello soloist to take on various roles, leading the dialogue, accompanying the orchestra, and sometimes acting as sectional leader. In particular I love the shadowy burlesque-like Scherzo, with its sudden stops and furtive scurrying on the cello. These Rostropovich likened to a man waking up in the dark not knowing where he is, and fumbling to find his way. 

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8. Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1

Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond.

Great Performances (Columbia, available in re-mastered version on Sony Classics, 2006)

I received the LP of this concerto from my father as a 13th birthday present, and fell head over heels in love with the concerto and its interpretation. I also met Rostropovich for the first time after his inspired performance of the work at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, which featured Shostakovich as the composer. In this recording, the high-voltage energy of the compact first movement is brilliantly captured, then followed in the next three movements by the expression of a whole gamut of emotions—from lyrical tragedy to icy desolation, painful protest to moments of irony. I always shiver when I hear the beginning of the cadenza, where the spotlight is fixed on the solitary figure of the soloist, embarking on his or her Hamlet-like monologue. Shostakovich composed this concerto in 1959 as a perfect vehicle for the 32-year-old Rostropovich, just as his second concerto of 1966 reflected the deeper, more philosophical side of the cellist’s nature.

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9. Sergei Prokofiev: Cello Sonata

in C major, Op. 119

Sviatoslav Richter, piano.  

The Russian Years (EMI, 2000)

This recording of the Prokofiev cello sonata is a historic document, as it comes from the first performance in March 1950 with the composer present. Rostropovich told me: “On the one hand, one can sense my agitation—it was the first time I ever played in public with Richter, but more than that one feels the festive spirit of the whole occasion. There was something undefinable in the air—a concentration, thick with human emotions, of great expectations, a special energy.” You can hear how the audience could not contain its delight and broke into applause after the end of the second movement, with its final brilliant ascending passage on the piano, which Richter said reminded him of the sound “of cats scampering up the keyboard.” And the great Richter, Prokofiev’s favorite pianist, was also a magnificent chamber musician, and knew how to harness his immense power and beauty of tone so as to allow the cello’s voice to come through.

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10. Robert Schumann: Trio No. 1

in D minor, Op. 63

Leonid Kogan, violin; Emil Gilels, piano.

Original Masters (Deutsche Grammophon, 2008)

These three Soviet musicians, all brilliant soloists in their own right, loved playing chamber music, for which they not only had great affinity, but imbued with enormous sophistication and generosity of spirit. Great personalities as they each were, they were also able to give and take, recede to the background or shine in the foreground, while always sharing a unified vision of the works they played. They performed together for some ten years, 1950–60, and also left several recordings, such as those of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. Their recording of Schumann’s D minor Piano Trio No. 1 was a revelation to me. Each time I listen to the third movement, Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung, Rostropovich’s visionary phrasing makes me hold my breath, while his partners’ response to it is no less scintillating. 

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