The fact that the USSR State Sym. was touring the UK in the summer of 1968 became a hot-button issue when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Despite tensions with the public outside the halls, Svetlanov was inspired to fiery (defiant?) performances -- BBC Legends has also released a tremendous account of Tchaikovsky's "Polish" Sym. from the same tour. Here we get the Dvorak Cello Cto. with Rostropovich, a nostalgic work that suddenly acquired violent overtones by being Czech and also by the suspicion that a Soviet loyalist like Svetlanov was part of a PR campaign by the Russians to soften the impact of the invasion.
Rostropovich was no apparatchik, however, and it may be, as an earlier reviewer says, that he was showing solidarity with the freedom movement by playing with such urgency and passion. This is a one-off reading, even for a figure who was larger than life in untroubled times. But the avidly curious will have to settle for an in-house tape -- i.e., a recording made on the sly by an audience member -- which is in pretty basic mono. The audience member must have been standing close to the stage (at the summer Proms concerts, the entire floor of Royal Albert Hall is reserved for standees -- because the focus is on the instruments near the front, in particular the cello and the woodwinds. A heckler emits a shout at the onset, before the music begins, and the crowd rustles in response. Otherwise, the unease of the occasion isn't that prominent in the performance, as much as the performers felt it personally. There are many touches of inspiration on Rostropovich's part, once you get past the basic sound quality. The Gramophone reviewer sums the event up touchingly: "It is the cellist, already in tears, whose transparently honest playing wins the audience over."
first on this CD comes the Schumann concerto led by Benjamin Britten in 1961, the venue being a church in the seaside town of Aldeburgh where he started his famous, still continuing music festival. This was Rostropovich's first appearance there, and as we know, he and Britten became great friends and allies, with the composer even going on a tour of Russia to perform; he later wrote his Cello Symphony and various solo works for Rostropovich, the cellist who inspired more composers than any other in history, I would suppose. The reading is sensitive and thoroughly engaging, although the cello is artificially miked to sound bigger than the orchestra. Taken together with the Dvorak, this becomes part of a true historical document, so technical considerations are beside the point in the end.