Although Strauss's intention in composing Don Quixote was that the role of the deluded Knight be taken by an orchestra's principal cello, it's not unusual, particularly on record, for solo cellists to take the part.
On the one hand, this is strange – the violin solo in Ein Heldenleben is, after all, every bit as challenging but always taken by the orchestral leader – but it has given the work an unusually rich performance history. And whatever one's view, it's impossible to imagine even the best principal cello displaying the kind of force of personality Rostropovich brought to his 'outsize characterisation', as Tully Potter describes it in his notes.
The great Russian cellist would, of course, produce a lushly engineered recording of the work some fifteen years later with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. In this recording from the Proms in August 1964, though, Rostropovich's Knight faces an additional, all-too-real challenge: to conquer the Albert Hall acoustic and fight his way through the often muddy, muffled recorded sound. There are times when we lose him (his high F in Variation X, really does sound like he's been defeated) and there are other times when the lack of detail in the orchestra (particularly, I found, in the last couple of minutes of the introduction), the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent, really affects one's enjoyment. However, for all these technical hurdles, I found there was something rather more appealing about this portrayal. In the studio against the copper-bottomed solidity of Karajan's BPO, Rostropovich is indeed outsized, to such an extent that we begin to doubt his vulnerability.
Although there are times when Rostropovich's playing is a little heavy-handed still – the dotted-rhythm passages in sixths towards the end of his conversation with Harry Danks's skittish Sancho Panza are rather laboured, for example – there is still a lot of compelling musicianship on show, not to mention the characteristic passion and intensity of his playing. Don Quixote's death is played with moving passion, if not quite delicacy, as are the thoughts of Dulcinea during his vigil; the sound is less detrimental at these points too. Danks's viola solos are alert and full of humour even if he runs ragged the horns accompanying him on a couple of occasions. There's also good work from leader Hugh Maguire, although his first solos are barely audible.
Malcolm Sargent is, as the notes point out, not a conductor one readily associates with Strauss, yet he conducts a very respectable account of the score and is alive to its many facets. He cannot avoid some untidy ensemble in the introduction, particularly, or the sixth variation's meeting with Dulcinea, but brings genuine drama to the battles. Aided by Rostropovich's passionate contributions, the love music is also tenderly done and the famed sheep of the second variation are unusually rustic and rowdy; probably as a happy result of technical issues rather than specific interpretative choice.
A substantial filler is provided in the form of Haydn's Cello Concerto No.2 in D Major, with Rostropovich leading the London Symphony Orchestra from the cello. This is a performance to make adherents of the authentic movement wince and at times Rostropovich almost saws away at his instrument with a vigour that seems totally inappropriate. The climax of the first movement's development section is turned into a titanic battle and the cadenza (uncredited) goes well beyond the peppering of double stops that Haydn himself employed in the cello part, culminating in a variety of effects that will strike even the most liberal listener as over the top. He produces some lovely touches, though, in the Adagio and the final Rondo is dispatched with something closer to the sort of legerdemain we expect from today's performers in these works. However, although there are some moments when he pushes rather hard, this is a performance that reflects the fashion of the time, interesting in its own right without taking into account the compulsive quality that Rostropovich brings to it.
This is a release that can hardly be recommended as a first choice for either work, but it is a valuable addition to the catalogue, not just for Rostropovich fans.
By Hugo Shirley