BACH: Unaccompanied Cello Suites – Mstislav Rostropovich, cello – Supraphon

by | Nov 12, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BACH: Unaccompanied Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012 – Mstislav Rostropovich, cello – Supraphon SU-4044-2 (2 CDs) 52:15, 71:45 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:
Russian critic Lev Ginzburg characterized the Bach Solo Cello Suites (1717-1723) as “a realization of the entire human pilgrimage through life,” an odyssey virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) undertook several times in his career. Janos Starker speaks of the six suites as “an essential building block of both the cello repertory and Western music at once.” Here, we have Rostropovich at the Rudolfinum of the 1955 Prague Spring Festival (26-27 May), when he fulfilled a position as vice-chairman of the international jury for the second edition of the cello competition. It was here that Rostropovich met his future wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, star of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
Even at age twenty-seven, Rostropovich brings deep conviction to his tour of the Bach suites. Each of the sarabandes, for instance, achieves a colossal girth and pathos of emotion, say in that No. 4 in E-flat Major. Curiously, all but the Fifth Suite has a sarabande rife with chords. Lyricism, urgency, and deep thought infiltrate the performances, the tempos broad and deliberate. His own teacher, Semyon Kozolupov had remarked that at nineteen Slava had mastered the Fifth Suite, “one of the most complex and most difficult to interpret.”  Rostropovich himself calls the Fifth Suite in C Minor “the essence of Bach’s genius,” that sustaining the line of the opening fugue constitutes an audacious challenge. The Courante and Gigue, moreover, set in a French rather than Italian style, command both a dignity and  intimacy quite unique in the set. The playing of the Sarabande proper, what Tortelier calls “an extension of silence,” conveys a poised mystique to which the audience palpably responds.
The notoriously unwieldy Cello Suite No. 6 in D may have been conceived for a small instrument, a violoncello piccolo, with a high register. Rostropovich calls this work “a symphony for solo cello,” savoring its energy and ebullient nature as symptoms of personal triumph. The opening Prelude proves a dazzling tour de force in repeated figures moving stepwise, achieving a lyric intensity through Rostropovich’s persuasive force and high expressivity of the line itself. This had already been the case in the opening Prelude of the G Major Suite, whose arpeggiations remain the most quoted from any of the suites. While the Allemande resembles a sarabande of its own, given its austere beauty, the ensuing Courante pulsates with suave energy. The Gavotte I, following an unearthly realization of the lofty Sarabande, proceeds like a pilgrim renewed in his faith. The ensuing Gavotte II and its drone effects soon invoke an entire village band as portrayed by Breughel. At the conclusion of the Gigue, an audience beguiled by the spirit of Bach and the prowess of a young genius-instrumentalist, breaks into sustained applause.
Even for those who have obtained the later Rostropovich EMI cycle of Bach Suites [also available on a 2004 DVD video, and laserdisc before that…Ed.], this version will maintain a special appeal, given its time and place in history, and the sheer heroic enthusiasm of its virtuoso artist. [There are also the amazing remasterings of the original 1930s Pablo Casals recordings, on both Gramophono and Pristine…Ed.]
—Gary Lemco

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