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RostropovichcropWhile Mstislav Rostropovich did of course record the Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello (BWV 1007-12) near the end of his career, for EMI in 1995 (issued on both CD and DVD), the release of another cycle from forty years before, from the dawn of his career in 1955, is a major event that demands attention.

This recording was made at the annual Prague Spring Festival, when the cellist was but twenty-eight years old. (It is also a notable occasion in that Rostropovich there met his wife, the famed soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and proposed to her after a whirlwind ten-day courtship!) The monaural sound is quite clear, if a bit hard-edged and closely miked; the audience is very quiet, though now and then an occasional soft cough is barely audible in the background. While quite acceptable on its own terms, the audio quality of course does not compete with the velvety sound of EMI’s digital set. A similar disadvantageous comparison can be made about the quality of the cellos used; Rostropovich had not yet acquired his famed “Duport” Stradivarius, and the unidentified instrument used in Prague, while again good enough in and of itself, cannot compare with the ravishing, burnished tone quality of the “Duport.” For an instant revelation of the difference, listen to the opening of the Prelude to the Fifth Suite, where the sheer depth and opulence of the “Duport” in the EMI set is positively dumbfounding. There is also the occasional note in Prague that is not quite dead in tune – clearly due in part to the far less rich overtones of the instrument rather than any shortcoming on the part of Rostropovich. If the sound of the instrument itself is a decisive desideratum here – and for many people it justifiably is – then this Supraphon release will likely not be much more than a curiosity.

However, in addition to instrumental sound there is the issue of differences in interpretation over the intervening span of four decades, and that is where this set comes into its own. The first thing to note is that overall, with the major exceptions of the preludes to the First, Third, and Fourth suites, the Gigue in the First Suite, and the Sarabande in the Fifth Suite, the earlier performances are noticeably swifter. (The total timing of the EMI set is 137:54, compared to 123:52 here). That said, comparisons of some individual movements can be misleading, as in the 1955 performances Rostropovich omits repeats in some movements – e.g., the allemandes in the Third and Sixth suites, the bourées in the Fourth Suite, the Courante in the Sixth Suite – though even in some of those instances the 1955 versions would still be swifter if the repeats were observed. (The cuts in Prague doubtless stem from Rostropovich’s early training; in the booklet notes to the EMI set, the cellist recounts that his teacher, Semyon Kozolupov, strictly forbade pupils to play repeats of the second half of movements written in binary form, allowing repeats only in the first half.) If observance of all the repeats is a major criterion for evaluating a set of the suites, then again this set will not be competitive with the EMI studio recording.

What, then, does this Supraphon set have that commends it as a supplement or alternative to the EMI studio version? In a word (actually two words), that elusive and almost intangible quality I would call “narrative intensity.” Despite my unreserved adoration of Rostropovich as the greatest cellist in recorded history (and is there any lover of cello music who does not so venerate him?), I had always found the EMI set of these suites somehow lacking, and this new release has finally made clear why. As tonally gorgeous and technically immaculate as those sets are, and despite the programmatic titles and descriptions that Rostropovich gives to each suite in that set, it is live in Prague and not in the studio that the cellist finds and articulates fully sustained interpretive profiles. Listen for example to the Sarabande in the Second Suite, dubbed “Sorrow and intensity” by Rostropovich in the 1995 EMI set. While that studio recording is very beautiful, it lacks meditative profundity; whereas in Prague there is a rapt sense of total inward intensity – what the Germans call Innigkeit – that transforms the movement into one bearing comparison with the symphonic Adagios of Bruckner. Likewise, while still too slow for my taste, the gavottes and Gigue in the Sixth Suite in Prague have some forward momentum, unlike the suffocatingly leaden versions in the EMI set.

Another notable difference is that in Prague Rostropovich is metrically much more exact, whereas on the EMI set he is rather free (or “rhapsodic,” to borrow his description of Pablo Casals). This is particularly true in the in the concluding dance movements (the menuets, bourées, gavottes, and gigues), with the last two movements of the Second Suite again offering particularly striking instances. While I suppose that some might characterize the earlier recordings as comparatively stiff, I do not find them so, and indeed prefer the more strict approach as better articulating the structure of the music. On the other hand, I much prefer the brisker tempos taken in the EMI set to the preludes of the First, Third, and Fourth Suites, the Allemande in the Third Suite, and the Courante in the Sixth Suite, as imparting a necessary greater degree of energy to those movements.

While my overall interpretive preference is therefore with the Prague versions, I cannot simply recommend that set in preference to the EMI one for those desiring a recording of Rostropovich in this repertoire. The two sets are strikingly different, and each has its considerable merits in manifesting the cellist’s extraordinary musical genius. (Indeed, the Prague set caused me to appreciate virtues of the EMI set that had not registered with me before.) For fans of Rostropovich, it goes without saying that this is a mandatory acquisition; but to lovers of cello music in general and the Bach suites in particular, I would say much the same thing, despite its occasional limitations.

Urgently recommended.

James A. AltenaFanfare Magazine