Three great Russians and bit of Shostakovich too…

I don’t subscribe to the theory that things ain’t what they used to be.  But I back my fantasy Trio of Oistrach, Rostropovich and Richter against any and all comers.  So here are two pieces to explain why.

Dvorak’s cello concerto could have been written for Rostropovich, so completely does he inhabit its inner being.  And, miraculously, his peerless 1968 recording with Karajan is on YouTube.

Or, if you don’t have it already you can rush out (on Monday) and buy it; or if otherwise engaged, get it online at Amazon.

Here is a programme note that I wrote about it a while ago, which seems to have resonance today after the recent events in Minneapolis and closer to home:

By the end of the 19th Century it was a source of great frustration to many Americans that, though rich and powerful, their young nation did not have a national music.  True, the bars and taverns were getting used to the sound of cakewalk – a precursor to ragtime;  and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was already well established with over 100 players (mostly German) under the vice-like grip of the great Nikisch.  But at a time when American entrepreneurs of vast wealth were scouring Europe and buying up all of the best painting, sculpture and ceramics they could find, cakewalk didn’t quite fit the bill.  So the Americans founded a National Conservatory of Music in New York and sent to Europe to find a nationalistic composer.  Dvořák answered the call.

When he arrived, he courted controversy by some of his pronouncements, probably inadvertently.  He soon announced that “There is more than enough material here and plenty of talent.”  By “material” he is thought to have meant American sights and sounds, American roots: “another spirit, other thoughts, another colouring … something Indian.”  Soon he had immersed himself in the great Negro songs such asGo Down Moses and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (not yet the national anthem of Twickenham) and was quoted in the New York Herald in May 1893 as saying that this was the foundation for “the future music of this country.”  That was really controversial, for even 25 years after the civil war and even in the industrial North, the recently liberated ex-slave population and indigenous native Americans were regarded by many as racially inferior.  So the idea that their music might be the national music was disturbing.

But not for Dvořák, who was utterly devoid of racial prejudice and who was as much at ease with ex-slaves as with the glitterati who looked to him to provide their land with musical hope and glory.  He travelled far and wide, from the great cities to the wide flatlands, and particularly to the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa.  Amongst Dvořák’s closest friends were Harry T Burleigh, the grandson of an ex-slave.  He had been born the year after Gettysburg and was a double-bass-playing baritone who became Dvořák’s assistant.  He taught Dvořák all of the music that he had learned from his grandfather.  Dvořák took it, assimilated it, made it his own, and then produced a string of masterpieces of which the most famous is The New World Symphony, which one American author described as “the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands”.

Though fascinated by America, Dvořák remained devotedly Czech and frequently homesick.  It shows in his compositions, which never lost their Bohemian identity even when adopting American material and influences.  The Cello concerto was composed between November 1894 and February 1895 and positively aches for Bohemia.  There was a particular and poignant reason for this.  While writing it, Dvořák heard of the serious illness of his sister-in-law Josefina Kaunitzova.  He had been in love with her thirty years earlier when she had been his pupil.  She had rejected him but they had remained close friends, even when he had subsequently married her sister.  Memories of Josefina caused him to insert a reminiscence of his song “Leave me Alone” in the middle of the slow movement: it had been a favourite of hers.

As originally written, the concerto was 56 bars shorter than the version which is now performed.  The first movement opens with an orchestral tutti which states the main themes (although Dvořák always seems able to slip in an abundance of new material at will).  The solo cello part throughout the concerto makes extensive use of the top of the instrument’s range.  While the first movement does not quite conform to conventional form, it is an acknowledged masterpiece, full to bursting with glorious tunes and virtuosity in equal measure.  The adagio is in three sections, each more captivating than the last, complete with the Josefina reference.  The finale begins with a march like approach before the soloist plays the main rondo theme.  The concerto was finished before Dvořák was due to return home in 1895.  However, just before he set off, he heard that Josefina had died.  On hearing the news, he deleted the four bars before the final eight and inserted the long final elegiac section in which “Leave me Alone” is quoted again, this time directly.  There are few more eloquent tributes to enduring affection in all music.

I started this series of letters with the Schubert String Quintet as one of the pieces that would never have been off my desert island list.  Here is another one (there are, it must be admitted, rather more than the regulation 8…): the violin sonata by Cesar Franck, in which he reached for the skies in a way he seldom if ever matched.  Written in 1864 and dedicated to the great Eugène Ysaÿe, it is in four movements that are almost monothematic (not quite).  It was one of Oistrach’s musical signature dishes, which he played with many of the USSR’s leading pianists; but it was with the incomparable Richter that he made his “legendary” (hate the word) recording in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire on 19 March 1972.  I cannot find that recording on YouTube, but (I think) it is available to buy at Amazon.

However, what I have found is another recording made at a concert in Paris on 4 December 1968.  The comparison is fascinating.  Here it is on YouTube.

One other suggestion: Perlman with Ashkenazy on a disc which has a wonderful recording (with the late lamented Barry Tuckwell) of the Brahms Horn Trio on Amazon.

And Shostakovich?  Well this is a bit of an indulgence because I was going to achieve a lifetime’s ambition and play Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra today, but Covid put paid to that.  A glorious piece, but hardly Russian you might say, and you would be right.  And here, to add to the confusion, it is played with great gusto by the NHK Orchestra conducted by Ozawa.  There is lineage here, because the first performance was given by Ozawa’s Boston Symphony in 1943 conducted by his illustrious predecessor, Koussevitzky.  The Shostakovich connection comes in the fourth movement, where Bartok quotes a theme from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.  The fact that Shostakovich borrowed the theme from Lehar does not seem to matter much.  It is a glorious piece.  Here it is on YouTube. There is an art to the building up of suspense, which Ozawa practices to perfection before coming on stage, and then there is a little bonus before the Bartok.

Recommended recordings?  I won’t please everybody, but Reiner and the Chicago Symphony is marvellous from Amazon.

And so is Solti with the LSO, whose horns do rather more justice to this great work that I might have done today.  Hardly surprising I suppose, as Barry Tuckwell was (I think) leading the section for Solti at Amazon.

by Jeremy Stuart-Smith