Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter play Beethoven's Cello Sonatas No. 3 and No. 5

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 took to the stage of the Usher Hall. Beethoven's complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano had seldom been played in their entirety in the world. The British premier was a century and a half late. The Third and Fifth Sonatas seen in this video are recorded by the BBC.

To measure the importance of the event, one just needs to refer to the stature of the musicians on stage. They dominate the history of 20th century music. Brilliant performers, they combine all the qualities: transcendental virtuosity, phenomenal memory, a detailed understanding of the score and heightened sensibility. Both greatly contributed to the creation of masterpieces by working closely with composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten. Despite their shared history, they leave separate legacies, Rostropovich's being much more visible than Richter's. Being somewhat recluse, perhaps this was Richter's choice and doing, however.

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 and Prague Competitions in 1947, and the Budapest Competition in 1949. In 1955, he married Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano at the Bolshoi. His career was hugely successful right up until his death 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 instrument at an early age. He learnt alone by reading opera scores. "I had three teachers, my father, Wagner and Heinrich Neuhaus," He claimed. Neuhaus, whom he joins at the Moscow Conservatory at the age of twenty-two and 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 where they premiered Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano. They also premiere Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante in 1952, with Richter conducting and Rostropovich on the cello. Over the course of their playing together, they perform most of the cello and piano repertoire. Personally, they did not form a very close duo. The end of their relations dates from the recording of Beethoven's Triple Concerto with David Oïstrakh and Karajan: "There was on one side Karajan and Rostropovich and on the other, Oïstrakh and me, says Richter. It was war."

Although Beethoven seemed to epitomize everything that separated them musically, his Cello and Piano Sonatas, fortunately for us, brought them together at the beginning of the sixties. It was one of those rare times in which two contrasting styles became complimentary. From 1961 to 1963, they recorded the Five Sonatas. It was a glorious overview of Beethoven's career, from his "classic" debut (the two first Sonatas Opus 5) to the last bold efforts (Sonatas Opus 102). Between these two blocks sits Sonata n°3 Opus 69, which is the most popular.

In this sequence dedicated to the second part of the concert, the performers play the Third and Fifth Sonatas. In the Third, Rostropovich and Richter seem to give free reign to their spontaneity, as if they were improvising the piece before our eyes. They exercise freedom of tone. More insulated and irregular, the Fifth Sonata demands for skilled musicians to be able to reach lofty heights at a moments notice. They were there that evening.

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