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As anyone will attest, “Rostropovich / Richter: Beethoven –
The Cello Sonatas, Nos. 1-5” is a somewhat misleading title
for this DVD, released as a part of the EMI Classic Archive
series. I say this, because the piano is an equal partner of
the cello in these works, as is also the case with Beethoven’s
10 Sonatas for violin and piano. In fact, the piano is often
the leading instrument.

These performances were taken from a single recital given
on August 31, 1964, at Usher Hall in Edinburgh, as a part of
the Festival. I can’t think of any superlative to describe them
that would be too effusive. Both Mstislav Rostropovich
(1927-2007) and Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) were at the peak
of their powers, and their music making here was truly inspired.

The five Sonatas span Beethoven’s compositional career,
beginning in 1796 with “Sonatas, Opus 5, Nos. 1 and 2,” and
ending in 1815 with “Sonatas, Opus 102, Nos. 1 and 2.” The
“Sonata, Opus 69” was composed during 1808. Thus, we can
experience music from Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods.
Many consider these five Sonatas to be the pinnacle of this
repertoire, with a wide range of compositional styles and
emotions on display.

I appreciated the natural sound balance of this DVD, as
opposed to most other recordings which invariably “mic” the
cello closely. In my opinion, that approach provides listeners
with an unrealistic impression of “live” concert sound. This sound
balance made me aware that Richter could have easily
“swamped” the cello parts by Rostropovich, even with the
piano lid lowered down. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case here,
and these two musicians played as if of one mind, in a nearly
ideal collaborative partnership. At times, the tempi were taken
at an astonishing clip, particularly in the Rondo Allegro of “Opus 5,
No. 2,” yet there was no sign of sloppiness, and everything
sounded crystal clear. In the late Sonatas, the tone colors
achieved by these two musicians were a revelation, with
Rostropovich and Richter delivering “in spades.”

I’ve always felt that Sviatoslav Richter had the largest
coloristic and dynamic range of any pianist I’ve heard. He also
had a huge repertoire, and was a true “titan” of the keyboard.
His ease in playing some of the most difficult passages here
and in the Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses,” in one of the
bonus features was astounding. Of course, Mstislav Rostropovich
has long been regarded as one of the premiere cellists. However,
many people may be unaware that he was also a fine pianist,
and often accompanied his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in recital.

I noticed that Rostropovich used a fast vibrato during these
performances, at all times. I found this interesting, since I’d read
that many string players felt the need to vary their vibrato speed,
depending upon the nature of the musical passage. At any rate,
he sounded great to me!

These performances were filmed in black and white, and I agree
with Robert Layton, author of the essay in the accompanying booklet.
He commended the camera work, which wasn’t too hyperactive,
contrary to the prevailing techniques in modern broadcasts. This
2002 DVD release has a running time of 129 minutes, and is
essential viewing for chamber music lovers. It also provides a
great opportunity to witness the collaboration of two of the
most important musicians of the 20th Century.