Rostropovich/Richter in 1964 = BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38; GRIEG: Cello Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36; SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40 – Mstislav Rostropovich, cello/Sviatoslav Richter, piano/Benjamin Britten, piano (Shostakovich)
BBC Legends BBCL 4263-2, 80:53 [Distr. by E1 Entertainment] ****:
The 1964 Aldeburgh Festival enjoyed the superb cello artistry of Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), who appeared in concert with the mighty Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) and composer-pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). The Brahms and Grieg sonatas derive from a recital given 20 June 1964, in which the Grieg fares decidedly better than the Brahms, which suffers a disharmony in matter of respective tempo, Rostropovich opting for speed, Richter for girth. Their ensuing tugs of war add a definite excitement–the fugal last movement bristles like an angry feline–but no small degree of rhythmic inexactitude. The sound balances, too, seem heightened by post-production engineering, especially favoring the middle and upper range of Rostropovich’s instrument.
The Grieg, however, exemplifies the kind of thorough mastery each of the principals could exert; and this proves particularly serendipitous to us auditors outside their native Russia. The Cello Sonata proves more than a grand, bravura work for cello and piano: it contains a wealth of rhythmic and melodic invention, the former closely aligned to the Piano Concerto, innumerable Lyric Pieces, and the incidental music to Sigurd Josalfar. Rostropovich and Richter play on an emotionally level canvas, ardent, tender, impassioned, and a touch manic. The bariolage technique applied in the middle of the first movement resembles Schumann, but the intensity transcends that composer and becomes an early form of Norwegian musical Expressionism. Richter’s icy perfection finds a natural foil in Rostropovich’s arched warmth. The second movement virtually quotes the main theme from the Sigurd Josalfar “Homage March” in the cello, sostenuto, over sweeping arpeggios from Richter. The last movement, Allegro molto e marcato, exploits most of the keyboard as well as Rostropovich’s capacities for arco and plucked colors. The simple folk dance that emerges as the main theme conveys an ingenuous directness that makes an effective counter to the bustle of the outer, ritornello writing.
The Shostakovich 1934 Cello Sonata, dedicated to Viktor Kubatsky, finds an urgent pair of collaborators in Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten, who first became friends in 1960 through the efforts of Shostakovich. Britten, despite Slava’s penchant for fast tempos, slows down his entry to first movement’s lyrical secondary theme, allowing Rostropovich his passionate insistence when the cello assumes the theme. The more unearthly harmonies in the score receive equally impassioned treatment, rife with emotional uncertainties and ironies. The ensuing wild Allegro, vaults into an “effective” danse macabre, resplendently and colorfully vitriolic. The melancholy Largo occupies a space of its own, plangent to the point of hopelessness. Having exposed his raw nerves, Shostakovich pulls back into the relative safety of his protective sarcasm for the wicked Allegro finale, a busy dialogue between the principals which explodes in the piano part. A grisly march-scherzo, it does in moments that which Shostakovich’s idol Mahler requires whole symphonies.