Rostropovich plays Bach suites with grand emotional tone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bach, Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, performed by Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI Classics 7243 5 55363):

Some of us have waited so long for Rostropovich's Bach that we no longer believed he would ever get around to recording the Bach suites.

Like all cellists, Rostropovich has played and studied the Bach suites -- the greatest music for his instrument -- since he was a child. But he did not program them frequently, and he only recorded Suites Nos. 2 and 5, which were once available on a long-out-of-print Vanguard LP.

Perhaps Rostropovich felt inhibited about performing the suites in his romantic manner in what was (until fairly recently) an anti-Romantic era. Perhaps he felt intimidated by the suites themselves -- each one creates a completely different universe. And perhaps he was daunted by the many great cellists who have left behind sets of the suites as legacies.

Rostropovich's long-awaited set ranks among the greatest ever recorded, and it belongs in the collection of every listener who cares about this music. I can't help but wish that he had not waited until his 65th year -- these newly issued discs were recorded in 1991 -- to commit them to posterity. Compared with such paragons of technical perfection as Janos Starker (in his early 1960s recording) or Yo-Yo Ma (in his 1980s recording), Rostropovich's intonation is not always secure, and he occasionally struggles with the music, as he would not have 15 years earlier.

But no other living cellist has a tone so immense, and no other cellist plays the suites so freely and renders them as such personal statements. Listening to Rostropovich's performance of the brooding Suite No. 2 is a journey into the heart of sadness, and he makes the rambling opening movement of Suite No. 4 awesomely meditative and majestic.

There are moments in these performances -- particularly in the sunny Suites Nos. 1 and 3 -- when one wishes for the technical precision of a Starker or a Ma. But such niggling doubts dissolve when one hears performances that are so symphonic (in their command of color), so operatic (in the way they suggest the human voice) and so passionate in their conviction.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear Mstislav Rostropovich play Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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