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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Rostropovich Plays Russian Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 1 Feb 2009 12:30:23 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Sergei Prokofiev
Nicolai Miaskovsky
Cello Concertos

Prokofiev: Sinfonia concertante in e, op. 125
Miaskovsky: Cello Concerto in c, op. 66*
Rachmaninov: Vocalise^ (MONO)

Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
*Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
^Alexander Dedyukhin, piano
EMI 3 80012 2 Total Time: 73.29

Summary for the Busy Executive: Slava!

Since his career lasted so long, we tend forget that Rostropovich began
as a prodigy. He hadn't left his teens, and Russians considered him one
of their leading cellists.  He entertained greater ambitions than that,
of course, having had early on a hankering to become a composer as well.
The two works here, however, propelled him into the ranks of star
musicians, not only within the Soviet Union, but, through these
particular recordings, also in the West.

Prokofiev based his Sinfonia Concertante (or Symphony-Concerto, as it's
often called) on his 1938 cello concerto, a score that had never satisfied
him.  Reportedly, Prokofiev asked Rostropovich to provide the cadenza.
Rostropovich liked to party and chase girls and kept putting the composer
off with, "Yes, yes, working on it." Prokofiev finally confronted the
young man and dressed him down.  At that point, Rostropovich got to work.

The completed score has endured critical dismissal and outright attack
from writers both within and without the Soviet Union.  It does tend
to sprawl.  On the other hand, the ideas both surprise and pack a punch.
The orchestration stands with Prokofiev's best.  Prokofiev kept
Rostropovich close at hand for technical advice, and as a result,
virtuoso cellists love to play the piece.  When one considers that the
composer wrote the music after the Zhdanov decree condemning "formalism"
in the works of all the leading Soviet composers, the work surprises
with a bite that recalls the Prokofiev of the Twenties, the enfant
terrible, despite the fact that the composer was desperate to alter his
style to Stalinist dictates.  Each of its three movements ranges widely
over big emotional territory.  The first begins as a kind of march, with
a long meditation as its middle, for example.

Miaskovsky (or Myaskovsky), marathon writer of twenty-seven symphonies,
was ten years Prokofiev's senior, but due to the younger man's precocity,
both were classmates at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  They also
became friends and collaborated on a symphony, now lost.  Prokofiev's
private estimate of Miaskovsky the composer ran along the lines of "hard
worker, sincere heart, and musically a little bland." In a way, I agree.
No piece by Miaskovsky has ever bowled me over, and I've heard more than
most.  Miaskovsky seems to me a blend of Tchaikovsky and Scriabin, with
all the really distinctive features filtered out.  Nevertheless, even
though it may seem that little has happened, his big works often sneak
up on you.  This is certainly true of the first movement of his cello
concerto.  I can't point to a single theme or moment that grabs me, and
yet by the end I feel that I've spent time in company with an extremely
wise mind.  Unusually, the character of the music, more than the quality
of its themes, impresses - beginning with what I think of as characteristically
Russian melancholy, long-breathing and low in both the cello and the
orchestra, and moving to a bittersweet, even radiant acceptance, higher
up in the instruments.  After the briefest pause, the second movement
takes off, driven by nervous bursts of repeated notes.  The movement
divides into two types of music, fast and slow, with the fast music very
much like Tchaikovsky.  You soon realize, however, that the two sides
are thematic cousins.  They don't conflict with one another; they
complement.  We reach the cadenza.  Miaskovsky then pulls off a brilliant
stroke. He slows down by a lot the quick repeated notes and we suddenly
find ourselves, without bump or jar, into the opening music of the entire
concerto, also beginning on repeated notes.  The music pivots as if you
had stepped through a time portal.  Miaskovsky's concerto may lack the
jaw-dropping brilliance of the Prokofiev, but it certainly hangs together
over a very long span.  And its power derives, rather than dissipates,
from its length.  It becomes almost a single song.

The disc concludes with the Rachmaninov Vocalise.  The composer
originally wrote it for solo voice and piano, but instrumentalists haven't
been able to keep their hands off it.  Even orchestras have gotten into
the act with all kinds of arrangements.  Why not?  It's one of those
deceptively simple melodies, where every note tells.  You may think
Rachmaninov just took it from the air, until you realize the tremendous
amount of art that went into it.  It seems so much in the middle register,
to insist so much one idea that it threatens to become boring.  Yet it
never does.

I tend to distrust legends.  I don't know why, since so many of them
keep their luster.  I do remember Casals disappointing me when I first
heard him, but not Feuermann.  I've had the good luck to hear Rostropovich
during his prime several times in concert.  Rostropovich astonishes in
the Prokofiev, with triple- and possibly quadruple-stop chords and
Himalayan rapid-fire passage work (particularly in the closing measures)
perfectly in tune.  In the Miaskovsky, he plays with brains as well as
soul.  In fact, he makes the best case for this composer I've ever heard.
The Rachmaninov can easily come off sentimentally.  Here, Rostropovich
emphasizes the elegance of Rachmaninov's mind.  I think especially of a
largamente on the way to the climax.  The accompanist, Dedyukhin, matches
his partner in character, if not quite rhythmically.  Malcolm Sargent
always seems to get a patronizing pat on the head or a left-handed
compliment from critics, damned if I know why.  I've never heard anything
less than a wonderful performance from him, and in a wide range of
repertory, to boot - from Handel and Beethoven to Prokofiev and Walton,
with a lot of stops in between.  He's terrific here, making sparks fly
in the Prokofiev and souls soar in the Miaskovsky.  Wonderful disc.

Steve Schwartz

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