MUSIC REVIEW : The Return of Mstislav Rostropovich, Cellist


How quickly we forget. In becoming, in the last two decades, a serious international conductor, the celebrated Russian musician, Mstislav Rostropovich, has been touring less with his original instrument, the cello. Music lovers everywhere may still think of him as a cellist, yet he has been increasingly less visible and audible in that capacity.

Thus, many of the curious, as well as a whole generation of young people who have not had the opportunity to hear the beloved Slava--even strangers call him that, as strangers used to call Gregor Piatigorsky Grisha--were represented at the cellist’s return to Southern California (after three years) Saturday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Few could have gone away disappointed. Rostropovich may not now maintain his characteristic--sometimes criticized--fever pitch of intensity through every second of a performance, but that light shines brightly nonetheless. And technically, notwithstanding occasional moments of inconsistent vibrato or vagaries of pitch, his mastery remains complete.


Again assisted by pianist Lambert Orkis, the cellist offered a provocative program.

A piece put together just for this tour, Alfred Schnittke’s arrangement--for cello, piano and tape--of the Epilogue to his own ballet, “Peer Gynt” (1986), provided the climactic half hour of this recital. It was a stunner. Schnittke’s unique eclecticism--alternating a harrowing atonality with a pungent and haunting tonal idiom--makes this piece both grating and engrossing. Rostropovich/Orkis performed it with kaleidoscopic eloquence.

They did as much with the wondrous Debussy Sonata (1915), finding all the insouciance and contrasts sometimes left buried in this enigmatic score.

At the beginning, the team tried to make a case for Richard Strauss’ early (and empty) Sonata (1882), a losing battle despite all their goodwill and affection. Then, alone, Rostropovich accepted the myriad challenges in Bach’s C-minor Suite for unaccompanied cello. This was not a labored reading, yet it moved slowly, and often without the soloist’s remembered elan.