Saturday, March 4, 2017

Mstislav Rostropovich as Conductor and Accompanist

The feature that most distinguishes Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG) from its “parallel” collection, The Complete EMI Recordings, is the presence of Rostropovich without his cello. On eleven of the CDs in the DG box, Rostropovich exchanges his cello for a conductor’s baton, while, in the final two CDs, he sits down at the piano to accompany his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Vishnevskaya also appears in five of the discs on which Rostropovich is conducting, because these take in two full-length operas, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (with Vishnevskaya in the title role) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (in which she sings the role of Liza).

Two of the orchestral recordings were made with the Berlin Philharmonic. Both of these provide more of Tchaikovsky’s music. The first contains suites from two of his full-length ballets, The Sleeping Beauty (Opus 66) and Swan Lake (Opus 20), neither of which was compiled by Tchaikovsky himself. The second rounds out the “ballet trilogy” with Tchaikovsky’s own suite (Opus 71a) from The Nutcracker. It also includes the Opus 45 “Capriccio Italien” and an arrangement for cello and string orchestra of the second movement (Andante cantabile) of the Opus 11 string quartet. As might be guessed, Rostropovich takes the solo work on this track, conducting from behind his cello.

The remaining orchestral recordings were made with the National Symphony Orchestra, based at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where Rostropovich served as music director between 1977 and 1994. Two of these albums involve his working with piano soloists. Martha Argerich plays the concertos of those two nineteenth-century composers born in the same year, Robert Schumann (Opus 54 in A minor) and Frédéric Chopin (Opus 21 in F minor, the second). On the other hand Mikhail Pletnev plays concertos by two Russian composers who were roughly contemporary but striking different in style, Sergei Rachmaninoff (Opus 30 in D minor) and Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 26 in C major). Curiously, these were the third concertos of both composers.

I never had an opportunity to observe Rostropovich conducting in concert. I gather from others that he could be very engaging and that his relationship with the National members was a good one. There is certainly nothing to complain about in any of the orchestral discs in this collection, but there is also not much to make one raise one’s eyebrows. Nevertheless, the orchestral selections are definitely more satisfying than the account of Tosca, which too often sounds more like shaking up the listener with amplitude than with making any dramatic impression. The Queen of Spades, on the other hand, does not get very much exposure; so just having it in the collection is a virtue unto itself.

The same can be said of the two art song CDs. Most singers (at least in the United States) tend to shy away from the Russian repertoire. Having encountered some of this music in several recitals, I have to confess that just about every encounter has been an enlightening experience. Vishnevskaya definitely brings a well-informed voice to her selections; and I suspect that I shall probably turn to the last two CDs in this set for frequent subsequent listening.

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