It was not exactly surprising that Mstislav Rostropovich rose so impressively to the challenges of the "Symphonie fantastique" of Hector Berlioz last night in the Kennedy Center. It was the first time he had conducted this subtle spectacular in Washington, but he has conducted it elsewhere, and besides the music is in his blood -- in the blood of every Russian musician.
The "Symphonie fantastique" is not only the ancestor of every orchestral showpiece composed in the last 150 years; it is most specifically the ancestor of Russian orchestral music, including "A Night on Bald Mountain," the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, "Scheherazade" and "Petrushka." The texture of these pieces reflects the lasting impact of Berlioz's two successful conducting visits to Russia, and his superb treatise on orchestration. So it was perfectly appropriate, and splendidly effective, for Rostropovich to approach this music in the same spirit that he brings to his compatriots.
He was particularly impressive in the fast and furious, vividly colorful fourth and fifth movements, which were a revelation of new orchestral possibilities when they were composed and still sound fresh and powerful today. But his touch was also effective in the subtler moments -- the dialogue of oboe and English horn in the third movement, for example, and the shifting tempos and dynamics of the first.
The program opened with "Pinocchio, a Merry Overture," by Ernst Toch, whose centennial is celebrated this year. He is a solid, imaginative composer who does not receive the attention he deserves. It was well performed, as was Mozart's magnificent 39th Symphony, K. 543. Rostropovich's growing affinity for Mozart is one of the more remarkable and gratifying aspects of his work these days.