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CD Review

Russian Cello Concertos

Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
^ Alexander Dedyukhin, piano
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
* Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
EMI 380012-2 73.29
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Slava!

Since his career lasted so long, we tend forget that Rostropovich began as a prodigy. He hadn't left his teens, and Russians considered him one of their leading cellists. He entertained greater ambitions than that, of course, having had early on a hankering to become a composer as well. The two works here, however, propelled him into the ranks of star musicians, not only within the Soviet Union, but, through these particular recordings, also in the West.

Prokofieff based his Sinfonia Concertante (or Symphony-Concerto, as it's often called) on his 1938 cello concerto, a score that had never satisfied him. Reportedly, Prokofieff asked Rostropovich to provide the cadenza. Rostropovich liked to party and chase girls and kept putting the composer off with, "Yes, yes, working on it." Prokofieff finally confronted the young man and dressed him down. At that point, Rostropovich got to work. The completed work has endured critical dismissal and outright attack from writers both within and without the Soviet Union. It does tend to sprawl. On the other hand, the ideas both surprise and pack a punch. The orchestration stands with Prokofieff's best. Prokofieff kept Rostropovich close at hand for technical advice, and as a result, virtuoso cellists love to play the piece. When one considers that the composer wrote the music after the Zhdanov decree condemning "formalism" in the works of all the leading Soviet composers, the work surprises with a bite that recalls the Prokofieff of the Twenties, the enfant terrible, despite the fact that the composer was desperate to alter his style to Stalinist dictates. Each of its three movements ranges widely over big emotional territory. The first begins as a kind of march, with a long meditation as its middle, for example.

Miaskovsky (or Myaskovsky), marathon writer of twenty-seven symphonies, was ten years Prokofieff's senior, but due to the younger man's precocity, both were classmates at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. They also became friends and collaborated on a symphony, now lost. Prokofieff's private estimate of Miaskovsky the composer ran along the lines of "hard worker, sincere heart, and musically a little bland." In a way, I agree. No piece by Miaskovsky has ever bowled me over, and I've heard more than most. Miaskovsky seems to me a blend of Tchaikovsky and Scriabin, with all the really distinctive features filtered out. Nevertheless, even though it may seem that little has happened, his big works often sneak up on you. This is certainly true of the first movement of his cello concerto. I can't point to a single theme or moment that grabs me, and yet by the end I feel that I've spent time in company with an extremely wise mind. Unusually, the character of the music, more than the quality of its themes, impresses – beginning with what I think of as characteristically Russian melancholy, long-breathing and low in both the cello and the orchestra, and moving to a bittersweet, even radiant acceptance, higher up in the instruments. After the briefest pause, the second movement takes off, driven by nervous bursts of repeated notes. The movement divides into two types of music, fast and slow, with the fast music very much like Tchaikovsky. You soon realize, however, that the two sides are thematic cousins. They don't conflict with one another; they complement. We reach the cadenza. Miaskovsky then pulls off a brilliant stroke. He slows down by a lot the quick repeated notes and we suddenly find ourselves, without bump or jar, into the opening music of the entire concerto, also beginning on repeated notes. The music pivots as if you had stepped through a time portal. Miaskovsky's concerto may lack the jaw-dropping brilliance of the Prokofieff, but it certainly hangs together over a very long span. And its power derives, rather than dissipates, from its length. It becomes almost a single song.

The disc concludes with the Rachmaninoff Vocalise. The composer originally wrote it for solo voice and piano, but instrumentalists haven't been able to keep their hands off it. Even orchestras have gotten into the act with all kinds of arrangements. Why not? It's one of those deceptively simple melodies, where every note tells. You may think Rachmaninoff just took it from the air, until you realize the tremendous amount of art that went into it. It seems so much in the middle register, to insist so much one idea that it threatens to become boring. Yet it never does.

I tend to distrust legends. I don't know why, since so many of them keep their luster. I do remember Casals disappointing me when I first heard him, but not Feuermann. I've had the good luck to hear live Rostropovich in his prime several times. Rostropovich astonishes in the Prokofieff, with triple- and possibly quadruple-stop chords and Himalayan rapid-fire passage work (particularly in the closing measures) perfectly in tune. In the Miaskovsky, he plays with brains as well as soul. In fact, he makes the best case for this composer I've ever heard. The Rachmaninoff can easily come off sentimentally. Here, Rostropovich emphasizes the elegance of Rachmaninoff's mind. I think especially of a largamente on the way to the climax. The accompanist, Dedyukhin, matches his partner in character, if not quite rhythmically. Malcolm Sargent always seems to get a patronizing pat on the head or a left-handed compliment from critics, damned if I know why. I've never heard anything less than a wonderful performance from him, and in a wide range of repertory, to boot – from Handel and Beethoven to Prokofieff and Walton, with a lot of stops in between. He's terrific here, making sparks fly in the Prokofieff and souls soar in the Miaskovsky. Wonderful disc.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz