Rostropovich and Richter Present a Mixed Bag


BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4. BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 (2 versions). GRIEG: Cello Sonata in A min. PROKOFIEV: Cello Sonata No. 1 in C / Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist; Sviatoslav Richter, pianist / Doremi 7931/32 (live: Aldeburgh, June 20, 1964 [Grieg & second Brahms performance]; Moscow, March 1, 1950 [all others]).

This album is not for everyone. It is a slice in time or, to be more specific, two slices in time, concerts given in Moscow in March 1950 when Joltin’ Joe Stalin (one of the Left’s great idols, right behind Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung) was still alive, and at Aldeburgh in 1964 when both artists were at last free of the Iron Curtain. (And dear Socialists: Why do you think they called it an IRON curtain? It wasn’t built to keep people out, but to keep them in, because most people wanted to get the hell out.) The sound quality is far from optimal, although clear and relatively noise-free. In the 1950 concert, in order to get Richter’s piano to sound clear and natural, the engineers have had to emphasize the buzz of Rostropovich’s cello. But this was a musically stupendous concert, as it included both Beethoven sonatas, the Brahms, and the world premiere of the Prokofiev, undoubtedly with the composer in attendance.

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1950 performances is that Richter, so often a lion at the keyboard, took a back seat to his cellist partner, allowing him to take the emotional lead in these works. This isn’t to say that his playing is ineffective, but it is subdued, and that in itself is unusual. Rostropovich’s huge sound dominates here, and it seems to me that he is also the one setting the pace insofar as the shaping and pacing of the music goes. This speaks volumes for Richter’s artistry, showing that despite his powerful attack and massive technique, he was not going to overpower his partner. I couldn’t imagine Vlad “the Impaler” Horowitz playing his sensitively in a million years. Richter’s playing here reminded me very much of Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich in his famous recording of the third sonata with Jacqueline du Pré.

I’m not sure if it was artistic choice or an accident, but in the last movement of the Beethoven Fourth Sonata the duo completely misses the humor of the “late entrance” of the cello in that famed passage, playing it very flat-footed rather than with humor and a bit of zing. Otherwise, however, it’s a good performance, strong and powerful if lacking in wit.

That being said, the Brahms sonata receives its proper gravitas but, even moreso than the two Beethoven sonatas, there is a certain lack of “springiness” in the rhythm. It almost sounds as if these two musicians chose to emphasize the piece’s structure rather than let themselves go emotionally in it, although there is a nice sense of forward momentum in the last movement.

The second CD begins with the last work in this concert, which was the world premiere of the Prokofiev Cello Sonata. Here, for some odd reason, Rostropovich’s low range is captured more faithfully than in the Beethoven and Brahms pieces; the duo also sounds looser here than they did in the Brahms, which is a welcome relief. Written during one of Stalin’s many snits over the ugliness of modern music, the sonata is tonal and relatively conservative for Prokofiev, albeit still an interesting piece. The duo sounds so relaxed here that they even “float” some passages exquisitely, at least insofar as the rather two-dimensional sound quality permits, and Richter is more alert to his role in underscoring the livelier passages in the piano part. In short, the duo really gets into this music.

The Aldeburgh concert from 14 years later has only marginally better sound—it’s still in mono, but the cello sound is rounder—yet the performances are immeasurably looser. Comparing this Brahms sonata to the one from 1950, one hears both musicians really enjoying the music, playing the opening movement in a much jollier manner. The timing says that this performance of the movement is 12 seconds longer than the one from 1950, but it sure doesn’t feel longer. Happily, the sound quality even improves by the second movement, and continues in good sound through the end of the concert. And the Grieg Sonata is, if anything, even finer than the Brahms: a performance of such combined intensity and relaxation that it mesmerizes you, making you think the music even better than it really is. Here they play very relaxed indeed, but it’s the kind of relaxation that makes it sounds as if they’re deep inside the music, not tense or emotionally disconnected. What a splendid reading!

The bottom line, then, is that this is a split review, and split exactly even between the two discs. CD 1 is good, with certain passages that are very good, but never quite great, whereas the second CD will keep you involved from start to finish. Yes, I realize thar this makes your decision to purchase this album a bit problematic, but that’s how I hear it. If you really enjoy this duo’s playing, you’ll want to own CD 2 for sure.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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