Thursday, April 26, 2007


A small piece in the newspaper today notes that Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian Cellist, is very ill in hospital. It seems strange that only a couple of days ago, I wrote a piece about another cellist, Jaqueline Du Pre, and the Elgar Concerto, and here we are today, brought up short by thoughts about the 79 year old Russian.

He was central, to me, in what was simply the most dramatic Concert I have ever experienced. Back in 1968, we lived near London, and being relatively “free agents” ie no children, could catch the train up to London to enjoy whatever was on, and London, then as now, usually had the pick of the country’s entertainment. The date was 21st August, and it was my wife’s birthday. We had bought tickets to a concert at the Albert Hall.

The day turned out to be one of those days – for some time, the Russians had been pushing their military into Czechoslovakia, to quell the liberal regime of Alexander Dubcek. But that afternoon, it had all come to a head and the Russians had made their dramatic move and had planted tanks on the streets of Prague. There was a real air of fear and betrayal which, even in London, you could feel as you walked around.

The concert, and I will remember the programme until I die, was to be performed by a Russian Orchestra, conducted (I think) by Rozhdestvensky. They were playing music by Russian composers - Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla Overture”, and the Shostakovich 10th Symphony. The soloist that evening was Rostropovich, who by an amazing stroke of irony (or totally brilliant programme planning!) was playing the Czech composer Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.

When we reached the Hall, there were anti-Russian demonstrations going on all around the outside, and for a while I thought the concert would be cancelled, but no – it went ahead, and we wound our way up to the Gods, high above the orchestra. To say the atmosphere inside the hall was electric was an understatement - you could cut it with a knife. The start of the concert was delayed by the demonstrators in the hall, led by Tariq Ali making their heartfelt point. You felt in the presence of a small bit of history, and it really got the heart racing.

I don’t know if it is wishful thinking, but, in my mind, I can hear the music even now. To say the least, it was powerful stuff, with the Shostakovich also being, on the night, an utterly inspired choice.

You couldn’t see the details from up where we were, but people said Rostropovich was playing this fiercely Czech music with tears streaming down his face. Here was a man who clearly felt his country had let him down, and, years later, he ended up being exiled from the USSR and having his citizenship revoked. All in all, an evening which even now I can remember as exhausting, but very uplifting.

Anyone who wants to hear the Concerto should head straight to the Rostropovich/Karajan version – it’s a bit like the Du Pre Elgar piece in that it comes top of every recommendation you will read - interestingly recorded in the same year as the concert, 1968.


One of a couple of dozen Classical recordings which will be in everyone’s Top Choices. A recording of majesty and power, serenity and great dignity. If you find a better one, give me a call, but I won’t be holding my breath!

It’s not the same recording, but YouTube has a set of 10 minute snippets (just like the old 78s where you had to turn the record over every few minutes!) of Rostropovich playing it. If you want to hear the rest of it, just search for the other 5 excerpts. I’ve put in Section 4, which covers the closing few minutes of the Slow movement below, so just click on the centre arrow.





1 comment:

Andrew said...

Great article, thanks for sharing! :)