A few years ago, flying from Japan to the United States, Mstislav Rostropovich had a stopover at the Moscow airport, in a city where he is a nonperson, deprived of Soviet citizenship and expunged from all reference books. While waiting for his flight to take off, he wandered into the duty-free shop, began browsing through the records and picked up one that had his picture on the cover. Amazingly, he paid for it with his American Express card and returned to his plane without anyone noticing who he was.

It is even more amazing that he was able to buy that record in the Soviet Union--a tribute, perhaps, to the Soviet government's need for hard currency. The music was Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, the most vigorous (if not always totally explicit) indictment of the Soviet system ever written by a Soviet composer. It is one of the greatest pieces of music composed since World War II, perhaps one of the greatest of the 20th century, and Rostropovich's Melodiya recording, with members of the Moscow Philharmonic, is probably the best conducting he has done on records.

This week Rostropovich will conduct the work with the National Symphony Orchestra. The soprano soloist will be his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, who appears on the Melodiya record with him and for whose voice Shostakovich wrote the soprano part in the symphony. If the conductor and soprano have recovered from the flu that they brought back from Hong Kong last week, this program should be one of the year's major musical events in Washington.

Written in 1969 for a chamber orchestra of strings and a large percussion battery, the 14th Symphony represents, in some ways, the composer's coming to terms with the idea of death. According to "Testimony," the gripping memoir prepared by his friend Solomon Volkov, the idea of death had haunted Shostakovich through most of a life plagued by ill health and the ominous shadow of Josef Stalin. In a way, the symphony can be interpreted as his answer to Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death," a cycle for voice and piano that Shostakovich had orchestrated seven years earlier and dedicated to Galina Vishnevskaya. It climaxed the composer's return to vocal music, a process that unfolded gradually through the 1960s after a quarter-century during which he produced practically nothing but instrumental works.

After a very promising beginning as an operatic composer, with a surrealistic satire, "The Nose," and the chilling "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," Shostakovich's career ran into a stone wall in 1936. Stalin attended a performance of "Lady Macbeth," hated it, and instigated a campaign against the composer that started visions of Siberia dancing in his head. Obviously, music without words was safer than vocal music, but after Stalin's death Shostakovich returned to vocal composition; he revised "Lady Macbeth" under the title of "Katerina Ismailova," composed several song cycles to satirical texts, and returned to large-scale vocal composition spectacularly with his 13th Symphony, "Babi Yar," with a text by Yevgeni Yevtushenko that frankly discusses anti-Semitism and other social problems.

The climax of this process was the 14th Symphony, which uses texts by non-Russian poets including Lorca, Apollinaire and Rilke. The music is spare, like a line drawing, full of violent contrasts and anguished outbursts of long-suppressed feeling. Significantly, perhaps, a whip is included among the percussion instruments. The poems chosen by Shostakovich dwell obsessively on death--the death of lovers, of soldiers, of poets. "I laugh, laugh, laugh," says one song, "at love, which is cut down by death."

As the cycle proceeds, the subject matter broadens. The eighth song deals with life in prison and "the end of hope." The next is a violent indictment of a tyrant: "You have wallowed in the vilest sins, fed on filth since childhood . . . rotten cancer . . . mad butcher . . ." Then it becomes thoughtful on the subject of genius smothered by mediocrity: "For talent, what is there, and where is the comfort among villains and fools?"

The last song, brief and enigmatic, summarizes the basic theme: "Death is all-powerful . . . it weeps within us." The symphony ends in an incomplete cadence, a sort of musical question mark in contrast to the series of exclamation points that concludes most Shostakovich symphonies.

An hour or two with a recording of this symphony before hearing the live performance should enormously enhance its effect. Rostropovich's recording, which is still the most powerful I have heard, is available on Columbia/Melodiya M-34507. A new recording under the direction of Leonard Bernstein (CBS M-37270) sometimes approaches Rostropovich's intensity. The only other available recording (London LDR 71032) presents the songs in their original languages, not the Russian translations used by Shostakovich--an interesting idea for those who wish to own more than one recording.