Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter play Beethoven's Cello Sonatas No. 1 and No. 2

Edinburgh Festival 1964

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Program notes

A Legendary Concert: Rostropovich, Richter and Beethoven.

On August 30th 1964, at the Edinburgh Festival, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter play, for the first and only time in concert, Beethoven's complete Cello Sonatas.  The cameras of the BBC were there to record the first two Sonatas...

In order to measure the importance of the event, one just needs to refer himself to the stature of the musicians on stage who dominated the whole history of 20th century music. As brilliant performers, they combine all the qualities: transcendental virtuosity, phenomenal memory, a close understanding of the score, and a heightened sensibility. They have also greatly contributed to the creation of masterpieces by working closely with composers, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten to mention but a few. Their lives are also legendary: Rostropovich through his involvement in history and Richter through his exclusion from history.

Mstislav Rostropovich, born in Azerbaijan in 1927, studied the piano, the cello, conducting and composition at the Moscow Conservatory (with Shostakovich). He played his first concert at fifteen, won First Prize at the Moscow General competition and at the Prague and Budapest competitions in 1947 and 1949. In 1955, he married Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano at the Bolshoi. His career was hugely successful, and only stopped when he died in 2007.

Sviatoslav Richter, didn't have any special training. Born in 1915 in Ukraine, he grew up in Odessa where his pianist father introduced him early on to the instrument. He learnt alone by reading opera scores. "I had three teachers, my father, Wagner and Heinrich Neuhaus." Neuhaus whom he joins at the Moscow Conservatory at the age of twenty-two and who says of him, "That's the student I have been waiting for all my life. For me, he is a genius."

These two geniuses meet for the first time in 1949 and premiere Prokofiev's Cello Sonata. They also premiere Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante in 1952, Richter conducting and Rostropovich on the cello.

In the course of their playing together they perform most of the cello and piano repertoire, but they did not form a very close duo. The end of their relations dates from the recording of Beethoven's Triple Concerto  with David Oistrakh and Karajan: "There was on one side Karajan and Rostropovich and on the other, Oistrakh and me, says Richter. It was war."

Although this Beethoven came to represent everything that separated them,, fortunately for us, the Beethoven of the Cello and Piano Sonatas brought them together at the beginning of the sixties. From 1961 to 1963, they recorded for Philips the Five Sonatas, that each represented in their way Beethoven's career, from his "classic" debut (the two first Sonatas, Op. 5 ) to the last bold efforts (the two last Sonatas, Op. 102 ). Between these two blocks, there is the Sonata No. 3, Op. 69, which is the most popular.

It is the meeting between Beethoven and the famous French cellist Jean-Pierre Duport which made him want to compose for this instrument. That is how Op. 5 was born, which was premiered with the composer at the piano and Duport on the cello. Duport is also the name of Rostropovich's Stradivarius. But on August 30th, 1964 in Edinburgh, at the time when the complete sonatas were filmed by the BBC cameras, he did not yet have this instrument.

In this sequence dedicated to the first part of the concert, the performers play the two Sonatas Opus 5 which highlight the instruments, to our great satisfaction. Such a level of playing is undoubtedly hard to equal: in a dialogue of the highest level, the piano and the cello call and respond to one another, each inviting the other onto its territory. A great lesson in music. Without the tension ever waning, the two musicians express the bold beauty of these early works that we rediscover performed by them.




  • "Rostropovitch and Richter," filmed by Walter Todds at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, August 31th, 1964, BBC archive.

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