With his return to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center this week, Mstislav Rostropovich has brought a world premiere written especially for him and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnev-skaya.
It introduces a French composer not previously known in this city if, indeed, in this country, Marcel Landowski. Entitled "Un enfant appelle..." the new work is a kind of dramatic cantata, scored for large orchestra with cello solos separating the three poems sung by the soprano.
The text is by the late Marie Noel, a mystical poet of probing, often troubling insights. With great daring, the third poem introduces the lines from the "Last Supper" in which Jesus institutes the sacrament of Holy Communion. Few composers have ever accepted the challenge of surrounding these words with music.
Landowski, using the resources of the largest orchestra with consummate skill, matches the poet's highly mystical message. "A child calls, far, far away... he is alone. A child who will grow old." Together with the questioning in the lines there is a final note of absolute hope and faith. The composer obviously knows, admires, and has great affection for his soloists. In turn he was repaid with a performance of infinite beauty.
In a style light years removed from the opera house, Vishnevskaya sang with penetrating power. Reaching the lines, "And gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take this and eat of it,'" her voice became filled with a radiant beauty of surpassing loveliness.
Rostropovich filled the dual roles of conductor and solo cellist with no hint of doing something out of the ordinary. He led the music with complete awareness of its expressive breadth, and played the solos with his absolute mastery, making them moments of unforgettable eloquence against the larger background.
The orchestra joined him in the quality of playing, creating a nimbus of singular splendor. The audience applauded the performers and the composer with equal fervor.
Proceeding with admirable authority from the sacred to the profane, Rostropovich ended the program by playing the second suite from Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" ballet after the Landowski. While the two composers lived in succeeding generations, the unmistakably French texture of both works made the transition easy. With the Oratorio Society a highly corporeal and excellent chorus, Rostropovich turned in a marvelously bacchanalian reading.
At the center of the suite the orchestra's new first flute, Toshio Kohno, made a ravishing effect in the famous solo to which her colleagues on clarinet, oboe and harp offered powerful competition.
The concert opened with Mozart's "Titus" Overture and the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. In both works a slightly higher level of intensity would have been welcome at times, notably at the ending of the overture and the beginning of the symphony. The latter, while conforming to Einstein's label of "chamber music," was beautiful in sound if at times a touch dry, a mite too sweet.
This is a concert not to be missed. It will be repeated nightly through Friday.