Rostropovich the composer’s champion

I just wrote a comment on Scott Spiegelberg’s Rostropovich post, in which he makes some very interesting comments about Rostropovich’s recordings of various Bach Suite movements.

My own favorite recording of “Slava” is that of the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto and the Dutillieux “Tout un monde lointain.” As I noted in my comment on Scott’s blog, both are pieces that would not have existed without Rostropovich, and the performances are extraordinary.

No one in the entire history of the cello has been a bigger force for expanding the repertoire. Rostropovich’s embrace of all musical styles was an important factor. The most important cellist before him, Pablo Casals, hated atonal music and didn’t play it. In his early career, Casals promoted the work of some of his romantic contemporaries, including the now forgotten Emanuel Moor, of whom Casals was a true champion. In his post-WW II life, Casals’s repertoire as both cellist and conductor extended from Bach to Brahms. And once he settled in Puerto Rico and the Casals Festival was established, his Eurocentric perspective led to a virtually total dismissiveness towards Puerto Rican music, creating wounds in that culture which have yet to fully heal.

Gregor Piatigorsky was not as big a name as Casals, but he was a wealthy man, and he could perhaps have done more to commission new works. Piatigorsky did not sell out halls in the way that Casals and later Rostropovich did, and like Casals he was a Romantic who, while more open to atonal music, was not a great champion of it.

Rostropovich, though, had a universalist taste and had the clout to get the many pieces he commissioned and premiered performed and recorded. He probably quadrupled or qunitupled the cello repertoire. And that, 100 or 200 years from now, will turn out to have been his greatest legacy.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Rostropovich the composer’s champion

  1. Guido

    I absolutely agree with the sentiment, but I’ll be nit-pickey:

    I think quadrupled or quintupled might be a bit steep… In terms of standard repertoire onlt the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto, Shostakovich no.1, Possibly Britten’s cello symphony, The Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, and possibly the second Penderecki have really established themselves as concerto repertoire pieces. The Second Shostakovich concerto, and Schittke’s second also get a few playing (but they would hardly be considered standard…) There are many more great concertos that he comissioned of course (Sauget, Vanberg, Tischenko, Vlassov, Lopes-Graca etc.) which sadly haven’t made it out of obscurity. So standard repertoire he probably added half again, and in terms of actual pieces it would be difficult to say – there are at least 500 classical concertos, at least 200 romantic concertos, and many, many more twentieth century ones.

    I’m being needlessly pedantic.

    Piatigorsky did in fact commission two of my all time favorourite works: the 1940 Hindemith concerto and the Walton concerto too. But other than that, not much else of any note.

  2. Guido

    oops loads of spelling mistakes in that last one (most crutialy Vainberg, not Vanberg. Sometimes its also spelt Weinberg).

    I have always wondered why there seems to be a general rejection by cellists of the Rostropovich Suites. They are no less non-period than any of the other classic sets, and they have a vitality and energy and drama about them that I find in no other set. It is true what you say though – I have yet to find a professional who will admit to liking them!

  3. Eric Edberg

    Thanks for your comments, Guido (and sorry for the slow response). You are right, I was somewhat hyperbolic. (Can one be “somewhat” hyperbolic?) And that’s an excellent point about the Walton and Hindemith concerti.

    As for professionals not liking the Rostropovich Suites, I think it’s hard to find professionals who are thrilled with any other professional’s recording of anything. One develops such strong feelings about major repertoire.

    The bits I’ve listened to of Rostropovich’s Bach Suites have seemed edgy and overly intense (to my taste). I was getting a massage once, and all of a sudden a recording came on of the G major Allemande; it irritated me so much I asked for it to be replaced with something else.

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