Friday, April 27, 2007

FriPod: Slava

Today the sad news of Mstislav Rostropovich's death has swelled out in the blogosphere and the mainstream media. In honor of the great 'cellist, conductor, and human rights advocate this week's FriPod will look at the recordings I have of Slava, plus some tracks that have "Slava" in the title.

1. String Quintet in C Major, Franz Schubert, performed by the Emerson String Quartet with Slava. I love this piece and I love this performance. I transcribed the first movement for brass choir, though I never really captured the energetic drive of the closing theme in the transcription. The second movement still haunts me, especially the minor dominant chord that almost made me swerve off the road when I first heard it (2:51 in the recording). One fond memory is of singing this movement in the large second floor hallway of the Eastman School, as a group of us were trying to do a Schenkerian analysis. We were too lazy to go find a piano, so we assigned parts (I was second cello, just like Slava). The third and fourth movements have such verve. I can picture the five musicians swaying and bouncing in their seats as they communicate joy, tenderness, tension, anger, beauty.

2. Suite No. 1 in G major for unaccompanied 'cello, J.S. Bach. Many of the obituaries being published today mention Slava's memorable performance of this suite at Checkpoint Charlie as the Berlin Wall was torn down. They don't reveal that he had only recently started playing the suites, and did not record them until 1995, the collection I have. His tone is so wonderful, clear yet full of character. The phrasing is sparkling, letting the dances have the proper rhythmic character while also giving a larger shape to the movements and the entire suite.

3. Suite No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied 'cello, Bach. Slava shows he understands the counterpoint behind the complex compound melodies of these suites. The Prelude sings as he gives a subtly different color to each contrapuntal line. The Allemande explodes with multistopped fireworks.

4. Suite No. 3 in C major, etc. I agree with Allan Koozin's description of Slava's suites: "His graceful accounts of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello illuminated the works’ structural logic as well as their inner spirituality." The Sarabande of Suite No. 3 is full of the trembling terror and awe that humanity feels as it faces God and the infinite. The unknowable is beautiful, but also humbling and frightening.

5. Suite No. 4 in Eb major, etc. I use the Bourees from this suite often as aural examples of the composite ternary form. It is so perfect, from the formal design down to the local motives as they drive to the essential cadences.

6. Suite No. 5 in C minor, etc. From Wikipedia:

Suite No. 5 was originally written in scordatura with the A-string tuned down to G, but nowadays a version for standard tuning is included in almost every edition of the suites along with the original version. Some chords must be simplified when playing with standard tuning, but some melodic lines become easier as well.

The Prelude is written in an A-B form, and begins with a slow, emotional movement that explores the deep range of the cello. After that comes a fast and very demanding single-line fugue that leads to the powerful end.

This suite is most famous for its intimate Sarabande, which is the second of the two movements throughout the suites that doesn't contain any chords. The fifth suite is also exceptional as its Gigue is in the French style, rather than the Italian form of the other five suites.

7. Suite No. 6 in D Major, etc. Slava plays the Prelude as if it were a 20th century work, with awesome echo effects. This suite has the longest track, with the Allemande clocking in at 10:31. That's impressive, especially given the extremely high notes required in this suite.

8. Slavonic Dances, Antonín Dvořák, performed by the New York Philharmonic. Okay, I'm cheating, as I didn't have any tracks with the complete "Slava" so I went with "Slav." I have three of the dances: "Dumka" op. 72, no. 6/14; "Sousedská" op 46, no. 6; and "Furiant" op. 46, no. 8. These dances capture the Slavic passion, the split between refined civilization and raucus barbarity.

9. Marche Slave, Op. 31, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, performed by Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps a funeral march for Slava?

10. Danse slave (Le Roi malgré lui), Emmanual Chabrier, performed by Ernest Ansermet and L'Orchestre De La Suisse Romande. French schlock, after glorious Russian pathos. Sigh.


Bryan's workshop blog said...

Nice selection.

Oh, this hits me hard. I remember Slava as my teenage hero, back when I played the cello. I saw him play the Dvorak when I was 14 - what a glorious, bravura performance!

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Eric Edberg said...

I knew for some time that Slava's death was approaching--in the cello forums I haunt, there had been links to articles about his hospitalizations and cancer. He was an extraordinary force.

One nit-picky correction--he did actually play and teach the Bach Suites all his life, frequently used the Sarbande of the D minor suite as an encore, and recorded the 2nd and 5th early in his career (there's a Vanguard recording which can be purchased through Itunes and listened to through Naxos Online, plus a bootleg or two). It's entirely possible he actually forgot about the first recording, given the huge amount of recordings he made. In that wonderful interview to which you link, he only says he had just made his first recording of "the suites," and its correct that he only made one recording of the complete set.

I don't think he was as successful in de-Russianizing himself as he thought when it came to playing them as he thought. Maybe it's because I've listened to so many early-music recordings of the Bach, and played them on a Baroque cello myself, and have my own strong ideas on how to play them, but I've found those recordings very hard to listen to (as is the case with many professional cellists).

My own favorite Rostropovich recording is that of the Lutoslawski concerto combined with the Dutillieux "Tout un monde lointain." Incredible pieces which would not exist without him, and brilliant performances.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Thanks for the correction, Eric. I have to admit that Slava's is the only recording of the Bach suites that I own. What can you expect from a brass player?