Perhaps because this
is the third Rostropovich Shostakovich
Cello Concerto No. 1 to come my way
recently, it was the Britten Cello Symphony
that struck me as what makes this disc
special. Here is the World Premiere
of one of Britten’s finest scores in
a blistering, unrelentingly dark performance.
While it remains true that soloist and
conductor were to revisit the work with
the ECO, the documentary value of this
performance is immense. Musically, it
is an overwhelming experience, with
all concerned intent on showing the
bleak nature of the score to its fullest.
No other cellist since has even approached
Rostropovich’s supreme confidence, or
his complete involvement with the work’s
For these reasons it
is easy to forgive the recording’s recessing
of the orchestra. Yet even this is not
too distracting, and it does not stop
one appreciating Britten’s elucidation
of his own compositional thought (which
comes across here as completely, and
powerfully, logical). Even the fast
second movement (Presto inquieto) is
shifting, shadowy, elusive, like a dream;
the Adagio exudes a massive sense of
space, the accompanying string chords
at the outset seeming to threaten to
implode under their own mass. It is
just this spatial freedom that contrasts
so well with the compelling forward
movement of the final movement, a Passacaglia.
What a magnificent trumpeter graces
the melodic line at the opening!. His/her
playing matches Rostropovich for sheer
gutsy abandon. To my mind this is work,
along with the Sinfonia da Requiem,
represents Britten the non-vocal composer
at his finest.
The Second Suite was
premiered by Rostropovich at Aldeburgh
on June 17th, 1968. A great
pity the recording details for this
account are unknown to EMI (hence the
omission in the title above). Can anyone
furnish us with the relevant?
Whatever the discographical
niceties, there is no doubt that Rostropovich
is absolutely hypnotic in this twenty-minute
work. Take the first movement, ‘Declamato
(Largo)’. Rostropovich’s line just leads
the ear through its various twists and
turns. Or take the second movement,
where there lies amazingly charged silence
between the notes. The audience
is preternaturally quiet (so much so
that when the people present do applaud
- and they get straight in there - it
comes as quite a shock!).
This Shostakovich First
is fleet of foot, more so than the recent
BBC Legends with the Leningraders, or
the EMI Classic Archive studio DVD with
Groves. It has a frenetic quality about
it, yet it can also dance. Who is the
horn player, though?. Whoever it was,
the playing is magnificent (with the
one caveat that the ‘whoop’ at the very
end from B flat to E flat is barely
audible - you can only really hear it
if you know it’s there).
The use of real pianissimi
works magic on the Moderato and enables
the build-up to have real power. The
passage with celesta and cello harmonics
(around 8’30) makes one hold one’s breath.
After hearing what
Slava can do with cello alone in the
Britten, it should come as no surprise
that the Cadenza is a thing of wonder.
Rostropovich’s singing line is there
in all its glory, and he works the cadenza
to a tremendous climax.
The resolution to the
rhythm from the orchestra gives the
finale massive ongoing force. This is
electrifying stuff, so much so that
the barrage from the timpani that closes
the work seems the only way to stop
the music hurtling on forever. Magnificent.
There is no doubt,
of course, that Rostropovich occupies
a place as a great artist of the last
century. These recordings are proof,
if proof be needed.