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Mstislav Rostropovich: LSO

Slava Rostropovich was a force of nature. He was the pre-eminent cellist of his generation - or perhaps of any generation – so when he swapped the cellists bow for the conductors baton it was widely predicted that the world had lost a master musician.

Rostropovich’s playing had two unique qualities. A superlative technique and an emotionally charged musical personality combined to make every performance an unforgettable experience. He was one of those players who could enchant the listener while practicing scales.

As a conductor he was not very concerned with technique. He reckoned that an orchestra of the quality of the LSO didn’t need a conductor to help them play as a unit. They could do that for themselves. His role was to create and inspire.

Shostakovich was Rostropovich’s teacher at the Moscow conservatory and became a close friend and confidant. Both of Shostakovich’s ‘cello concertos were written for Rostropovich and he was their pre-eminent interpreter. The fifth symphony was written in 1937 after Shostakovich had fallen out of favour with the communist regime over his opera ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ and then withdrawn his fourth Symphony. He was under huge pressure, on the one hand to create a work that would reflect the heroic nationalism favoured by the Stalinist regime and at the same time be true to his modernist musical instincts. The half hour ovation that followed the first performance of the fifth by Mavrinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic was proof of his success on the political level, but the composer was never really convinced. 

During the recording period for this performance Rostropovich talked of numerous conversations with Shostakovich in which he agonised over the political pressures and whether he had truly resisted them. Rostropovich described it like this: 

‘It was too much, impossible, he was overwhelmed. To make this music true we must be overwhelmed, the audience, everybody.’

Rostropovich set out to create – with the LSO - an overwhelming performance of his friend and mentors greatest and most tortured symphony. By general consent he succeeded – overwhelmingly.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

  Read the Rostropovich blog post

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