Rostropovich interprets Russian music for Americans

HOW rare to encounter a performance of a symphony -- in a concert hall or on records -- in which every aspect of the piece is fully realized. Just such a performance occurred in Carnegie Hall recently, when Mstislav Rostropovich led his National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, D.C.) in a performance of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony.

It is always noted that Rostropovich was one of the composer's closest friends. The two cello concertos were composed for him while he was still a Soviet citizen and best known as a virtuoso cellist. This special relationship to the composer manifested itself in a deep-felt sympathy with the music and its message, which spilled out effortlessly over the apron of the stage and flooded the audience. In Rostropovich's Soviet-recorded performances of Shostakovich, one heard at once the soul of Russia as well as the agonies of a musical genius striving to maintain his individuality under an artistically oppressive bureaucracy.

Now, Rostropovich and his wife, the noted Galina Vishnevskaya, are in the West, and have been literally erased from the history of the Soviet Union. But the conductor has been able to keep this spirit of Russia, and more particularly of Shostakovich, alive. It is this spirit that he is trying to impart to an American orchestra -- and he's having some success. In interpreting Shostakovich, few conductors can touch Rostropovich.

Is it any wonder, then, that Rostropovich has usually triumphed in Shostakovich works -- either as cellist or as conductor? I recall a performance of the Fifth Symphony at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra the weekend the composer died in 1975. It remains one of the few grandly emotional and intense musical encounters of my concertgoing career and was overlaid with the particular pathos of Rostropovich's tribute to a cherished colleague and friend he would never see again.

Since then, Rostropovich's insights into what makes this great symphonist unique have deepened and expanded. His performances are more concentrated, more controlled, and less excessive, with no loss of intensity. His orchestra now understands what his rather blunt, bearish conductor's gestures are really trying to communicate and they are with him all the way.

Nothing about the Eighth sells itself in the way the Fifth or Tenth does. There is no bombastic finale. There is no moment where the conductor can stand back and let his orchestra showily pump away while he relaxes to prepare for the next onslaught. When properly performed, every climax drains the emotional/interpretive reserves of the conductor. The Eighth also ends quietly, and, as a rule, conductors do not appreciate hour-long works that do not finish in an eruption of applause-garnering noise.

The resignation at the end of the struggle that is Shostakovich's Eighth is not peaceful but bitterly submissive. The audience must feel a sense of frustrated, even thwarted, resolution, if a performance of the work is to be considered successful. And this Rostropovich managed with consummate skill. Each climax was built inexorably, fully, so that the eruptions really rattled the rafters with the right sort of oppressive weight. The deceptive moments of quietude were laced with an imposed artificiality that robbed those moments of any true sense of peace.

The record buyer can experience this same intensity in Rostropovich's 1983 performance of the Fifth, which has been recently issued on compact disc (Deutsche Grammophon 410 509-2). It lacks that extra dimension of conviction that the orchestra brought to the Eighth, but the ensemble has learned a good deal about working with this unusual maestro in the three-plus years since that recording was made -- so the disc remains a unique document.

It is no secret that Rostropovich is generally at his best in Russian music. The most recent sample of his Tchaikovsky is the composer's final opera, ``Yolanta,'' taped in concert in Paris in 1984 with the Orchestre de Paris (Erato NUM-75207, two LPs; ECD 88147, two CDs).

The opera begins slowly, but by the time the quasi-fairy tale plot begins to move -- it tells the story of blind Yolanta, whose profound love for the knight Vaudemont eventually restores her sight -- the music inimitably becomes the Tchaikovsky of ``Eugene Onegin'' and ``The Queen of Spades.''

The singers of interest here are Nicolai Gedda and Galina Vishnevskaya. Both are veteran performers; both have passing problems with higher-lying vocal lines these days; both know how to make the listener overlook the odd blemish and get involved in the totality of their dramatic performances.

Rostropovich aids them by conjuring some beguiling playing from the Orchestre de Paris, while at all times stressing the theatrical power. This is a valuable addition to the operatic catalogue, with a lamentably rare recorded appearance by Miss Vishnevskaya, one of the blazing presences of the postwar vocal scene.

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