MOSCOW — The last symphony that Mstislav Rostropovich conducted in Moscow before leaving on what turned into 16 years of exile was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the "Pathetique." On Tuesday, the "Pathetique" was the first symphony he conducted at the start of the National Symphony Orchestra's appearances in Moscow and Leningrad.
The symmetry was Rostropovich's way of saying that he had kept faith, cultural as well as political, during those long years abroad and that he was anxious to pick up, as best he could, where he had left off.
"These past 16 years that we were in the West . . . we have been true soldiers of our Russian art, Russian music," he said on his return this week. "We have familiarized a lot of people with the Russian orchestral repertoire and Russian operas."
The welcome that Rostropovich, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington since 1977, received Tuesday evening at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory--the same place where he had last conducted in Moscow--was enthusiastic and emotional.
Shouts of "Bravo, Slava, bravo!" erupted as the last notes of the "Pathetique" died. "Well done!" one of Rostropovich's old colleagues at the Conservatory called out. The rhythmic applause brought Rostropovich back for five bows.
"He is one of our greatest musicians, and we were deprived of him for these many years," the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said. "The joy of our people at Slava's return can barely be explained and probably not understood by a foreigner. He is Russian, and he is ours. He makes us proud.
"Understand, he took a stand for artistic integrity and for the basic truths of life, and he did not compromise. His return tells us that a new era has begun, and it will be a time of a great cultural renaissance as well as of political and economic reforms--a national rebirth."
The performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 brought a 12-minute standing ovation and forced Rostropovich into a series of encores for an audience that wanted more and more.
But tears were flowing in the audience of government ministers, members of parliament and leading figures in Soviet culture even as Rostropovich took the podium amid cheers of "Slava, Slava, Slava."
"So many years in the West but so Russian, so very Russian," the music commentator Svyatoslav Belza remarked. "The mannerisms, the attitudes, the tolerance of chaos, the desire for the spiritual--the whole feel is Russian. That's why people love him so much. . . ."
The hall was packed well beyond its capacity of 2,000. There were chairs in the aisles, people standing at the back and the stairwells were filled. Outside, hundreds stood in the snow behind police barricades, vainly hoping for a spare ticket.
Among those in the audience was Raisa Gorbachev, wife of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was accompanied by Queen Sophia of Spain. The French minister of culture, Jack Lang, had also flown in for the performance.
Even the orchestra's two-hour morning rehearsal was filled with students and professors from the Conservatory and other music lovers, who were rewarded with Rostropovich's playing of Dvorak's Cello Concerto as well as a look at him fine-tuning the orchestra for the evening performances.
Rostropovich had chosen not only the Tchaikovsky symphony but also Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 to show how well his American orchestra has come to play Russian music, traditional and modern. Today, it will perform Serge Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, another Rostropovich favorite.
He also brought two American works, Stephen Albert's "Rivering Waters," drawn from his symphony "River Run," and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which he wanted to introduce to Soviet audiences.
In addition, Rostropovich will play the Dvorak concerto in Moscow today and in Leningrad later this week.
The concert Tuesday night was recorded for broadcast across the Soviet Union.
The performances here are part of the Soviet-American cultural exchange program, and also have extensive corporate support. The Dvorak concerto and the "Pathetique" are being recorded live by Sony for its classical records series, and a documentary is being made.