Tim Page Recommends

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello (EMI Classics; two discs). Yes, these were recorded late in Rostropovich's life and, no, his interpretations make very little attempt to follow the dance rhythms that inspired Bach. In short, this is old-fashioned baroque playing by a master who was coming close to the end of his career. But anybody who does not respond to the mixture of searing soulfulness and monumental gravity that Rostropovich brings to this great music is missing something extraordinary. We will not hear this sort of playing of Bach again.

Beethoven: Sonatas for Cello and Pian o (Philips; two discs). In this performance, Rostropovich and Sviatsoslav Richter -- the greatest cellist and pianist to emerge from the Soviet Union, respectively -- join forces for magnificently spirited interpretations of Beethoven's five sonatas, which span his compositional career and meet in the middle with Opus 69, the exuberantly tuneful and deservedly popular Sonata No. 3 in A.

Dvorak: Cello Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme (Deutsche Grammophon). Rostropovich recorded these two works -- perhaps the most popular pieces in the entire cello repertory -- on several occasions. This is a particularly felicitous teaming, as Rostropovich is in his most elegant form and is accompanied by the equally meticulous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in its glory days under Herbert von Karajan.

Shostakovich: "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" (EMI Classics; two discs). This is the obstreperous modern classic that nearly got its composer executed: Stalin himself objected so profoundly to Shostakovich's dissonant score that he dictated an editorial to Pravda denouncing the opera. It's a masterpiece, of course, and this is its great recording. Rostropovich leads his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya; the tenor Nicolai Gedda; and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a rendition that melds the music's sarcasm and bleak romanticism.

Britten: Cello Suites 1 and 2; Sonata for Cello and Piano (Polygram). Dozens of important works for cello were fashioned for Rostropovich. One of the less likely contributors was Benjamin Britten, who had been writing mostly for the stage for some time. But he was so taken with Rostropovich's artistry that he turned out a number of chamber music masterpieces with the cellist in mind. This recording is especially valuable, as Britten himself is at the keyboard for the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Rostropovich with the National Symphony Orchestra The cellist recorded the 15 symphonies of Shostakovich in the 1980s and 1990s, and the complete set is still available from Teldec. The NSO participated in the recordings of the first, fourth, fifth, seventh, ninth, 11th and 13th of these; the rest feature the London Symphony Orchestra. Other NSO recordings with Rostropovich include Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Schumann's Piano Concerto (with Martha Argerich); a complete performance of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov"; the first and third Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos (with Vladimir Feltsman); and two suites from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet."

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