Fine new recordings by two great artists of the cello

May 08, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Elgar, Cello Concerto in E minor. Respighi, "Adagio con variazione." Milhaud, Cello Concerto No. 1. Performed by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the Moscow Philharmonic and the USSR Radio Orchestra (in the Milhaud), conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Russian Disc RD CD 11 104):

Perhaps the two greatest omissions from Mstislav Rostropovich's discography are recordings of the Bach Suites for solo cello and the Elgar Concerto. It could be that Rostropovich believed he could not match Janos Starker in the suites or the late Jacqueline Du Pre in the concerto -- although it's difficult to imagine so sublime an egoist believing any such thing.

In any case, neither the Bach Suites nor the Elgar Concerto loomed large in his performing repertory.

This live performance of the Elgar dates from Moscow in 1964, when the great Russian was at the very top of his form. Rostropovich does not even attempt to strike the elegiactone that most cellists -- Du Pre most successfully -- try to capture in this piece. For the Russian, this is tragic music, and he plays it with a tone and a technique big enough to beggar description. He does not languish indulgently in the music -- the fast tempos closely match those found in Elgar's own recording of the piece with cellist Beatrice Harrison -- yet the playing is never matter-of-fact.

Everyone who loves this piece should acquire this recording, which is is unmatched for sheer brilliance -- the rapid-fire bowing in the second movement is alone worth the price of the disc -- and size of conception. The recorded sound is unusually good for a Soviet-made recording of a broadcast. And while Rostropovich did make a studio recording of the Milhaud Concerto, he never got around to the charming Respighi trifle that fills out this disc.

Schumann Cello Concerto. Dvorak Cello Concerto. Performed by Daniel Shafran, the USSR State Symphony and Kirill Kondrashin conducting in the Schumann, and the Estonia Symphony Orchestra and Neeme Jarvi conducting in the Dvorak (Multisonic 31 0180-2):

The Russian Daniel Shafran was almost exactly Rostropovich's contemporary and his equal as a cellist. Why he never became as famous as Rostropovich is simple. The fact of Shafran's Jewishness meant that he was not pushed as hard as Rostropovich by the Soviet bureaucracy in the initial phases of their careers; and when Rostropovich, who had been that bureaucracy's darling, had his subsequent political problems with it, the Cold War transformed him into a hero of the human spirit.

But Shafran played as imaginatively and as brilliantly as Rostropovich. Shafran's studio recording of the Schumann (available in the 1950s on the Vanguard label) was drenched in fantasy, yet lucid; and played with an enormous tone that exhibited razor-sharp intonation.

This live recording from a few years later with a great conductor and in reasonably good sound has exactly the same qualities. This is a performance whose poetry makes those of the more celebrated Rostropovich or Yo-Yo Ma seem like prose.

The Dvorak Concerto is somewhat less impressive because the conductor and orchestra are not in the same class as those in the Schumann performance. But Jarvi conducts with his usual energy, and Shafran's reading has a sweep of conception, tenderness and richness of tone that never become self-indulgent or mannered.

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