The New York Times
Rostropovich Conducts At Wolf Trap on PBS
By TIM PAGE
Mstislav Rostropovich, probably the most highly regarded cellist after Pablo Casals, has yet to develop into a reliable orchestra leader. However, like many limited conductors, he has in his repertory certain works that he understands completely, and of which he is capable leading extraordinary performances. He is at his best in Russian music – particularly 20th century Russian music – and the works of Dmitri Shostakovich are close to his heart. For this reason, his performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which will be shown tonight at on WNET / Channel 13, can be enthusiastically recommended.
The program – part of the “On Stage at Wolf Trap” series – was recorded with the National Symphony Orchestra and features an introduction by Beverly Sills. Mr. Rostropovich speaks of his long association with the composer, which began when the 16-year-old cellist entered the Moscow Conservatory. In spite of a 21-year difference in their ages, the two became fast friends and musical collaborators.
Although it is 45 minutes long, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a gripping, and even concentrated, work – a world apart from the Chaplinesque sarcasm of the First Symphony or the portentous political bombast of the Seventh, to mention only its best known siblings. It was written in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s terror, when the composer feared he might be arrested at any moment. Mr. Rostropovich lived through this era too, and therefore brings to the work a spiritual understanding beyond the ken of most Westerners. He knows all too well the symphony’s subtext, the meaning behind the notes.
Technically, Mr. Rostropovich’s conducting is not of the highest order, – at times he seems to be responding to the musicians rather than leading them. But the urgency, the pride and pathos of Shostakovich’s message is conveyed with a rare immediacy.