As luck (and that’s absolutely not the right word here) would have it, the concert took place on the same day the Russians had rolled their tanks onto the streets of Prague to quell the liberal regime of Alexander Dubcek. The concert was an absolutely electric experience, and simply the most emotional one I have ever attended.
The radio programme, presented by Paul Gambacinni, reconstructed that day, and talked to some of those involved with it. We heard from Tariq Ali who led the demonstrations inside and outside the hall, and we heard from the Prom producer who did not know until late on whether the concert was even going to go ahead – I loved his question “Haven’t the Russians read the Radio Times?” We listened to members of the Soviet State Orchestra who recounted how their KGB “guardians” were “tooled up” and stationed at the sides of the orchestra, to prevent contact with the audience, and presumably to thwart the slightest thought of defection.
And, to top it all, we heard parts of the actual recording of Rostropovich playing the Concerto with absolute passion, saying unequivocally, via his music, what he felt about his country’s actions. Sadly, the Concerto is the only part of the concert for which a recording still exists, but the power of the music blazes through. The opening Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, played at breakneck speed, as if the conductor wanted to get on the next bus home, and the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, which ended this unforgettable night, are lost forever.
A very atmospheric programme, which rewinds my personal “Lifetape” back 39 years in a flash.
If you want to hear it, it’s available until Saturday 8th September, on the Beeb’s Radio 4 “Listen Again” site.
Cello fans, grab it while you can.