Mstislav Rostropovich, cello/ Alexander Dedyukhin, piano/ USSR Radio & TV PROKOKOFIEV: Cello Sonata; Sym.-Concerto; Concertina – Large Sym. Orch./ Gennadi Rozhdestvensky – Praga Digitals

Mstislav Rostropovich showcases three brilliant cello works by friend and colleague Sergei Prokofiev. 

PROKOFIEV: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 119; Symphony-Concerto in e for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125; Concertino in g for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 132 – Mstislav Rostropovich, cello/ Alexander Dedyukhin, piano/ USSR Radio & TV Large Sym. Orch./ Gennadi Rozhdestvensky – Praga Digitals PRD 250 337, 74:01 (9/9/16)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Praga assembles three seminal 1964 Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) “live” performances of music by his friend and collaborator Sergei Prokofiev, for whom he helped recast the Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 58. The premiere of the revised Sinfonia Concertante occurred 18 February 1952, with Sviatoslav Richter’s appearance on the podium to lead the Moscow Youth Orchestra. The success of the performance inspired Prokofiev to begin “a diaphanous concertino for cello and orchestra. . .which I intend to complete . . .in 1953.” Prokofiev’s untimely death prevented his finishing the last movement, so Rostropovich, working with Dmitri Kabalevsky, completed the score.  The 1949 Cello Sonata came as a product of “formal” criticism by Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov, who had accused Prokofiev – and Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, and Khachaturian – of having become “too cosmopolitan” for the Soviet regime’s listening audience. Conceived directly as a vehicle for Rostropovich, the Sonata had its premiere with him and Richter at the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 1 March 1950. Miaskovsky declared the work “a miraculous piece of music!”

The Cello Sonata (rec. 25 February 1964) opens in the cello’s low registers, Andante grave.  Richter spoke of the expansive first movement as “a wonderfully inventive and effusive song of twilight.”  The passionate Moderato animato section contains a melody not too distant from the lyric episodes in Alexander Nevsky. The second movement Moderato serves a scherzo with a lyrical central section, Andante dolce.  We might wish the microphone placement were more forward and better balanced for this estimable interpretation. True to a kind of “cyclic” principle, Prokofiev transforms themes of the first movement for his brilliant and virtuosic Allegro, ma non troppo finale. The writing for the cello becomes explicitly bravura in character, as does the often fiendish piano part. The music imparts a feeling of exhilarated jubilation, something of the Sixth Symphony’s journey to spiritual liberation.

The 1952 Sinfonia Concertante (rec. 25 February 1964 in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory) has three movements, but their relative proportions seem skewed: the outer movements are equal in length, while the central movement is a vast, complex Scherzo loaded with wild ideas and a thrilling, extended cadenza. The work begins with a relatively slow movement that proceeds with the character of a march, propelled by an ascending four-note theme. The solo cellist enters immediately, its long-winding, eloquent melody pitted against the insistent, four-square pattern of the motto theme. This juxtaposition, along with the contrast of ascending and descending figures, fuels the drama of the movement. Some of the interplay between punctuated orchestra and the solo reminds us of balletic moments in Cinderella.

The Allegro giusto central movement reverts to the explosively ironic cast of the music Prokofiev wrote in his enfant terrible days. We hear passing echoes from the vitriolic Second Symphony. In spite of the urge to sarcasm, the music no less compels us to recognize Prokofiev’s natural gift for lyrical tenderness, an evocation for the Russian bucolic life that always beckoned him home. Rostropovich demonstrates the full panoply of his technique: quick alternation of bowed, arco passages and pizzicato and glissandi figures, double stops, wide leaps, and quicksilver runs. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the throes of a marvelous cadenza, just as intricate and virtuosic. When Rozhdestvensky’s forces resume, the dialogue becomes feverishly brilliant until the music breaks off into a lyrical mediation.  The coda builds upon agitated figures to a searing climax in which Slava’s fingers seems to scamper off the fingerboard into the stratosphere.

Prokofiev reverts to his “classical” technique of a theme-and-variations for his last movement. Despite having selected a countrified, ambling folk dance as his theme, Prokofiev manages to inject some grotesquerie via the bassoon and cantering high harmonics from Slava.  The temptation to dig his thumbs into the ribs of Socialist Realism must have been immense. The coda borrows material which can find in the original e minor Concerto, Op. 58. Once more, Slava and Rozhdestvensky manage to shed their mortal guise for superhuman digital and rhythmic powers, ending their flight with a decisive thump of the tympani.

Prokofiev had been simultaneously engaged on seven compositions, including the Concertino, Op. 132, when he died, having left two of the movements almost complete in piano score. His conversations with his dedicatee Rostropovich allowed Slava to complete the work, employing Kabalevsky as the orchestrator.  This performance with Rozhdestvensky comes from the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory 13 May 1964, in more “present” sound, by the way. The first movement, Andante mosso, projects a nobly melancholy tune. The fiery development assumes a militant affect in Kabalevsky’s orchestral treatment with tympani, snare drum, and punctuated brass: there is a more lyrical scoring by Steven Isserlis.  The Andante second movement means to be a sentimental nocturne for Rostropovich that reminds us of Prokofiev’s innate, lyric optimism.  The Allegretto finale returns to the dance as its inspiration, even applying the drunken antics of the Op. 125 Sinfonia-Concertante. A waltz figure emerges that itself assumes various characters, lyric and demonic.  The juxtaposition of songful and epic imagery remains dramatic  and occasionally ironic, as suits Prokofiev’s persona.

—Gary Lemco

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