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The 2003 release of Mstislav Rostropovich’s performances of
works by Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev is the latest
DVD that I’ve watched from EMI’s Classic Archive label. The disc
features this famous cellist performing these two pieces that were
expressly written for him.

The first piece, Shostakovich’s “Concerto for Violincello and
Orchestra No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107″ dates from 1959.
Supposedly, Rostropovich (1927-2007)  learned and
memorized the solo part just four days before giving the
premiere performance. This 1961 concert features the London
Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Groves. Shot in
black and white with mono sound, the performance is a real
stunner, and features a young Barry Tuckwell (1931 – ) on
first horn! It is the better known of Shostakovich’s two
concertos for the cello, with the main melody of the first
movement returning in the fourth movement, Allegro con moto,
giving the work somewhat of a cyclical feel. There is a
particularly treacherous passage in harmonics for the cellist
in this work, and Rostropovich brings it and the lengthy cadenza
off magnificently. The camera work was quite good for the era,
including a double-exposure sequence when the cello and
the first horn play in tandem.

The second work is Sergei Prokofiev’s “Sinfonia Concertante
for Violoncello and Orchestra in E minor, Op. 125.” This work is
actually a revision of a concerto which Prokofiev wrote in the
1930’s. The piece was considered a poor one by many in those
days, but when the composer heard a young Rostropovich
playing it in 1937, he was inspired to rewrite it as the work
commonly known today, and Rostropovich gave the premiere
of the new piece in 1952, with none other than Sviatoslav Richter

It was apparently revised again and rededicated to Rostropovich
who performed it in 1954. This is the version which is featured
here and videotaped in color during 1970 with the National
Orchestra of Monte Carlo, conducted by a young Okko Kamu
(1946 – ). It is a fascinating work in three movements, lasting
some 36 minutes and is fiendishly difficult. I felt privileged to
be able to view this, particularly since it was performed by the
cellist who inspired the work. It was actually the first time I’d
ever heard this piece. Needless to say, I could have chosen
worse performances for a first hearing! Kamu and his orchestra
provided a fine accompaniment. Although the color camera
work was not as imaginative as the black and white techniques
used during the Shostakovich piece, it was still more than
adequate. The sound for this performance was mono as well.

As a bonus, Rostropovich is featured as an accompanist for
his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (1926 – ), in a
performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Four Songs and Dances
of Death,” composed in the 1870’s. Like the Prokofiev work, the
performance was also shot in black and white in 1970.
This provided me with an opportunity to witness Rostropovich’s
versatility as a musician and indeed, he was a sensitive
partner. He also performed the music without a score! As for
Vishnevskaya’s voice, I’ll say this: It wasn’t very “pretty” here,
but I’m sure that the singing and interpretation of these songs
were very “truthful,” which is what they definitely required. This
was all the more reason why it was a pity that English subtitles
weren’t available here, since the communication of the text
was of paramount importance. I’m also used to hearing them
performed by a bass or bass-baritone singer, which is the
normal custom.

For all of the aforementioned reasons, there is a welcome,
authentic aspect to this entire 85-minute DVD, and
I recommend it highly.