With all due respect to Deutsche Grammophon, the recorded legacy of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was solidly established in January of 2009 with the release of The Complete EMI Recordings, a box set consisting of 26 CDs and 2 DVDs. It is hard to match the repertoire covered by this collection, particularly with regard to the twentieth century, in the domains of both chamber music and concertante compositions. To be fair, however, in compiling this collection EMI was able to appropriate the archives of recordings of performances in Russia made between 1980 and 1974. These included two significant concert recordings made in the presence of the composer, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 119 cello sonata in C major with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 126 (second) cello concerto in G major with Evgeni Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. There is also the 1964 world premiere recording of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 68 cello symphony with Britten himself conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.
Nevertheless, the release at the beginning of this year of Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, a box set of 37 CDs, makes it clear that the EMI collection can definitely not be taken as the last word on Rostropovich. The breadth of repertoire may not be quite as extensive, but there are definitely selections of historical significance that cannot afford to be overlooked. In addition, this collection offers recordings of Rostropovich serving as both conductor and piano accompanist, aspects of his career that never found their way onto EMI recordings.
As in the past, this site will deal with the entire collection by dividing it into “thematic chunks.” The current article will deal with Rostropovich as a concertante soloist. This will be followed by his chamber music recordings, saving the conductor/accompanist recordings for the last (which is also how they have been arranged in the box).
If the EMI recordings were distinguished by the presence of composers as adventurous as Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Astor Piazzolla, one of the most adventurous of the group was notably missing. During the last months of his life, Olivier Messiaen had been composing a concerto for four musicians that he particularly admired. One of them was his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod; and another was Rostropovich. The other two were oboist Heinz Holliger and flutist Catherine Cantin. Loriod only discovered Messiaen’s work on this piece after his death. It had been planned as five movements, four of which were substantially complete. Loriod collaborated with George Benjamin to prepare a performing version of those four movements, which was given its premiere in September of 1994. Myung-Whun Chung (whose name was added to the list of dedicatees) conducted the world premiere with the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille. The recording of that premiere performance was released by Deutsche Grammophon the following year.
To be clear, this recording should definitely not be treated as some historical oddity. Having had the good fortune to listen to Chung conduct Messiaen during a visit to the San Francisco Symphony at the beginning of 2008, I have particularly strong feelings that this is a man who knows his Messiaen. We should also remember that this was far from the first time that Messiaen set about to compose music for individuals who happened to be close to his heart. The “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time) could not be a better example. Thus, while some may criticize this “valedictory concerto” as being a bit thin in its thematic and textural material, one can definitely appreciate the composer’s awareness of the voices he wished to have express themselves through this particular score.
Equally significant is the presence of Paul Sacher in this collection. Sacher is probably best known for commissioning many of the most significant compositions of the twentieth century, but his interest in earlier music was as strong as his support of modernism. (Sacher was the conductor on my own first “complete Brandenburg” recording.) In 1977 he made a series of four concerto recordings with Rostropovich and the Collegium Musicum Zürich. These included two concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and one each by Giuseppe Tartini and Luigi Boccherini. Cadenzas for both of these latter concertos were provided by Rostropovich himself, and the Vivaldi concertos include a harpsichord continuo performed by Martin Dernugs. These performances may not have been “historically informed” in the strictest sense of that phrase; but they offer refreshing instances of highly personalized approaches to performance.
It is also worth noting that there is one Decca recording in this collection. This has Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in a 1964 “follow-up” performance of the Opus 68 cello symphony, along with Joseph Haydn’s C major cello concerto (Hoboken VIIb/1). (In this case the cadenzas for the Haydn were composed by Britten.) Curiously enough the presence of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic is limited to a single CD that includes Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 concerto in B minor and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33 “Rococo” variations. However, like the few other CDs in the concertante category, there are recordings that fall in the “nice to have,” rather than the “must have,” category. Such recordings are expected in large collections, and it is more important to dwell on the outstanding virtues.