Friday, June 5, 2009

What a Difference a Decade Makes

Ten years separate the two adjacent CDs in the EMI box of the complete recordings that cellist Mstislav Rostropovich made with them (which, incidentally, happen to include the recordings of his performances in the Soviet Union that he brought with him when he emigrated). CD5 includes the 1969 recording of the A minor double concerto by Johannes Brahms (Opus 102), with David Oistrakh on violin and George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; and CD6 offers the same concerto recorded in 1979 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, with Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Itzhak Perlman on violin. There is a tendency to look back on Szell as austere, bordering on the sterile, providing readings known more for clinical accuracy than for more subjective elements of expression. However, it is hard to imagine either Oistrakh or Rostropovich being "merely clinical." Consequently, this is an instance in which the two soloists take the lead; and Szell dutifully escorts the orchestra in the directions they set. This is in sharp contrast to the later recording, on which it seems as if Perlman is the one so concerned with "accuracy" that there is almost a lassitude to his reading; so all the energy that drives this composition forward resides in the chemistry between Haitink and Rostropovich. Fortunately, that chemistry is very effective; but its effectiveness casts a less than complimentary light on Perlman's skills as a soloist. I have to say, however, that, on the basis of the few "live" performances I have heard by Perlman, I have been struck by how few opportunities I have had to really appreciate those skills. To the contrary, there have been too many occasions when he sounded as if his mind was already on his next engagement, if not on catching the plane that would take him to that engagement.

Thus, what is missing from the 1979 recording is that sense of performance in the immediacy of the moment. (If I may shamelessly appropriate from Bhagavan Das, born Kermit Michael Riggs, I would call this the "be here now" approach to performance.) One reason why that sense may be more pronounced in the 1969 recording is that it is, in many respects, a "document of a conversation" taking place between Oistrakh and Rostropovich, where Szell and his orchestra are basically providing what Kenneth Burke would call the "scene" of that conversation. There is a similar sense of conversation in the recording made by Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky in 1960 with Alfred Wallenstein conducting the "pickup" RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. In both cases the conversation is facilitated by the soloists sharing a broad cultural context in which Brahms' "text" enables them to talk about many things, while it may very well have been the case that Perlman and Rostropovich just did not have that much to say to each other.

While both Rostropovich recordings were probably made under "studio" conditions, they were just as probably both post hoc documents of concert performances. The 1969 recording was made in Cleveland's Severance Hall at a time when Rostropovich was still a Soviet citizen. It is hard to imagine the Soviet government to allow both him and Oistrakh to travel to the United States solely for the purpose of making a recording. The presence of these two Russians must have made for a major "event concert" in Cleveland, possibly one of those gala events aimed more at generous patrons than at music lovers. Similarly, by 1979 even well-endowed institutions like the Concertgebouw had to worry about fund-raising; so this later recording may well also be a document of an "all-star event." Nevertheless, given the circumstances of the concerts, we have some grounds for assuming that both recording sessions were approached in the spirit of recreating the actual concert experience that had preceded those sessions; and EMI has an excellent track record when it comes to capturing that kind of spirit. Thus, if my argument is based more on the circumstances of a concert performance rather than those of a recording, it is because I am willing to acknowledge a level of fidelity to those performances in EMI recording operations. That being the case, I would say that Rostropovich's memory has been better served by the earlier of these two recordings.

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