Paul Gambaccini’s Radio 4 show ‘For One Night Only‘ is quite a rare thing: a radio show about (rather than playing) music that manages to avoid being joyless, self-indulgent and too long. Perhaps it helps that each episode is built around a specific historical event — usually, and in this case, a live concert. This helps to keep things focused and grounded, and there’s much less of the conceptual tangent-wandering you sometimes get with programmes about the arts.
The episode I’m talking about is this one from 2008. It looks back at the BBC Prom of 21st August 1968, when (Russian) Rostropovich and the (Soviet) USSR State Symphony Orchestra played (Czech) Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, amid protests in London and calls for the concert to be cancelled. Why? Because, that day, Russian tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia.
I would have loved to see Rostropovich play at any time, but this really would have been something else. It is often said that music, sport, culture in general, can and should be kept separate from politics. This concert is a powerful counterexample. Shouting in the audience, protestors outside, tanks in Czechoslovakia, and on the stage a tearful Rostropovich playing the music in such a way as to make it ‘completely clear whose side he was on’.
The CD is available on BBC Legends, here, and now I’m going to buy it. But there’s a final, poetic sadness. On the recording that survives, the shouts of protest from some in the audience as the music begins have been removed. I’d take the original any day, sullied and tainted as it was by the low politics and human tragedies of its time. Just as live music should be.