While admirers of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich may have some difficulty choosing between The Complete EMI Recordings, released in January of 2009, and the more recent Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG), when it comes to chamber music, DG definitely rules the mother lode. This is not to dismiss the EMI offerings, which are likely to be of particular interest to those interested in cutting-edge modernism. However, those with a preference for more established traditions will definitely find their comfort zone in the DG selections, not only with Rostropovich but also with the company he keeps.
The “mother lode within the mother lode,” so to speak, is definitely the two discs containing the five sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. As was the case with the violin sonatas, the first edition publications by N. Simrock list all of these sonatas as having been written for piano and cello; and it is clear that Beethoven saw himself as pianist and therefore worthy of “top billing.” The pianist on these recordings (originally released on Philips) is Sviatoslav Richter; and one could not ask for a better partnership of equals. Readers of this site are already aware of the clarity that Richter could bring to his expressive interpretation of whatever happened to be on the score pages, and Rostropovich matches him for both clarity and expressiveness every step of the way through these five sonatas. It is hard to imagine that anyone seriously interested in this side of Beethoven’s repertoire would want to be without these recordings.
On the hand the presence of three different recordings of Franz Schubert’s C major quintet might raise the eyebrows of those wondering if this is too much of a good thing. Each recording, of course, involves Rostropovich “sitting in” with a different string quartet at a different period in his career: the Taneyev Quartet in 1963, the Melos Quartet in 1977, and the Emerson String Quartet in 1990. There is no question about my own personal preference. Melos has a solid command of the Schubert quartet repertoire, having recorded all of them for DG. They are clearly “in charge” of both technical and rhetorical direction; and Rostropovich has no problem fitting in with them as a “team player.” (This is far from a secondary role. In one of my recital reviews for Examiner.com, I made the observation that, in this quintet, these is nothing secondary about the second cello!) On the other hand it is also interesting to listen to a younger Rostropovich joining forces with a Russian quartet, even if it is only for an alternative “nationalist perspective.”
A partnership as interesting as that with Richter can be found on the two discs of Decca recordings of Rostropovich performing with Benjamin Britten at the keyboard. Not all of these are performances of Britten’s own music, although the Opus 65 C major sonata for cello and piano is definitely a high point. However, there was often a decidedly recognizable element of playfulness that could be found when other composers were involved. There is a clear appreciation of the “fun” side of Schubert’s D. 821 sonata, originally composed for arpeggione, and the mocking rhetoric that can be found in both Robert Schumann’s Opus 102 “Volkston” (popular style) pieces and Claude Debussy’s D minor sonata.
If there is a weak spot in this collection, it can be found in the two discs of Beethoven string trios. These performances, recorded in 1988, brought Rostropovich together with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and violist Bruno Giuranna. Like the Opus 5 cellos sonatas, these were all written before 1800. However, while Richter and Rostropovich seem comfortable with the blending of exploration and wit that one finds in Opus 5, Mutter tends to lead the trios with an almost gruff aggression that does not really fit in with the playfulness that the young Beethoven could bring to those two elements of exploration and wit. These are performances that may honor the “flesh” of Beethoven’s score pages; but the “spirit” could have done with a bit more attention.
Fortunately, these are about the only weak selections in the chamber music side of this collection, making this genre a decided high point of DG’s anthology.