Mstislav Rostropovich began his non-Soviet career as a cellist in 1947 in a blaze of acclaim. Today the acclaim continues unabated, even now that he has shifted his venue from the cellist's platform to the maestro's podium.
One still marvels at what Rostropovich, one of the greatest cello talents of any time, can conjure from his instrument. Last week, the New York Philharmonic presented Rostropovich, now music director of the National Symphony of Washington, D.C., as the gala draw in its Pension Fund Benefit Concert. He played the Dvorak Cello Concerto (B minor, Op. 104). Zubin Mehta conducted the rather raucous orchestra.
I first heard Rostropovich as cellist in London's Royal Festival Hall quite a number of years ago. He was receiving the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and he performed the world premiere of Witold Lutoslawski's cello concerto, of which he was the dedicatee. The work offered the soloist an enviable array of things to do in the manner of a dramatic presentation - the cello as a character in a drama that was now comic, now tragic, now troubled, now serene, now witty, now acerbic.
Rostropovich's face was just as communicative as his bow: The lower jaw and lip jutting slightly out, the gaze looking up and off to the right as he played a searing melody, the eyes taking on a lovely twinkle at lively moments, the eyebrows furled with sadness at introspective sighs.
After this dazzling display, Rostropovich moved on to the ''Rococco Variations'' of Tchaikovsky in a noble, emblazoned reading. In those days, though the cellist was still a citizen of the Soviet Union, his name on a billboard guaranteed sellouts wherever he appeared in the West. He was only beginning to be heard as a conductor in certain repertoire, and was also occasionally heard as a pianist when accompanying his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in recital.
By the time I heard him again in Boston, he and his family were already out of the Soviet Union (they left in 1974 and were stripped of their citizenship in 1978).
Whether heard in a solo recital or in either the Dvorak or the dazzling Prokofiev ''Sinfonia Concertante'' he remains the wizard of sound. No cellist of recent times has been able to combine so smoothly a master technique, a huge, varied sound, and stunning dynamic control of that sound. From the very loudest rumbles to the quietest hushes, the tone never lost quality.
The agility is often stupefying - there seems to be nothing he cannot play. By the time I last heard him as cellist, he was celebrating the 25th anniversary of his Carnegie Hall debut. It was, as always, Rostropovich undimmed. And so it was at the Philharmonic last Wednesday where, oddly enough, his name did not sell out the hall even though his dates as a cellist are increasingly rare. The richness, pliancy, and suppleness of the tone; the remarkable variety of shadings and dynamic inflections, the utter beauty of the quiet playing and the majesty of the fuller moments, all meshed into a noble account of the concerto.
But it was rather aloof emotionally, as his playing always seems to have been , even on his early recordings. This is most peculiar, since his conducting is nothing if not passionate and heartfelt, and his piano playing is equally remarkable. I recall a performance of Mussorgsky's ''Songs and Dances of Death'' with Galina Vishnevskaya in Boston's Symphony Hall that was emotionally shattering, not just because she inhabited every last note with her fiery, tortured presence, but because Rostropovich at the piano was a volcanic presence.
With his National Symphony, I remember hearing a performance of Benjamin Britten's ''War Requiem'' that left me drained for days. Again, it was not just that Mme. Vishnevskaya was in superb form in the part written for her; it was not just that tenor Sir Peter Pears, Britten's lifelong friend and frequent inspiration, was singing the part written for him; it was not just that it was well known that Rostropovich and Britten had been close friends for so many years. It was that Rostropovich touched the emotional core of the piece and projected it with all the right weight, balance, and fervor.
I certainly have no explanation as to why the cello playing has lacked much of that communicative fervor. Perhaps he was taught this restraint in his early days in the Soviet Union. Perhaps he ''hears'' his instrument in terms of sound and dynamics rather than in terms of mood and emotion.
Nonetheless, Rostropovich is remarkable at revealing the vocal side of the instrument and its musical/histrionic possibilities. And even without that warmth, his playing remains the stuff of legends.
A footnote about the New York City Opera debut of Linda Kelm.
She is barely 30 years old and is already known nationwide in the title role of Puccini's ''Turandot'' - one of the supreme tests for big-voiced sopranos with secure tops. Miss Kelm's voice is very, very large, clean, and secure in the upper range, with substance and solidity right down to the lowest notes. She sings the music with meaning, with color, and with characterization. And while the instrument itself is not of overpowering beauty, it surely can stand up to the loudest possible orchestral eruptions and still be heard easily.
In the pit, it must be added, Christopher Keene was quite kind to his singers. Balances and textures were clean, transparent, and rather light, though the mood, exoticism, and savagery of the score were equally underplayed, to the detriment of musical impact.
Prince Calaf this time around was Harry Theyard, in precarious vocal health. Pamela Myers repeated her sympathetic, if rather inelegantly phrased Liu. The Jack Eddleman direction moves a bit more smoothly than it did opening night, but no less inanely.