Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor, Op.77 (first published as Op.99) (1947/48) [40:07]
Violin Concerto No.2 in C Sharp Minor, Op.129 (1967) [32:33]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 3-6 May 2006, Hercules Hall, Residenz, Munich, Germany
ORFEO C 687 061 A [73:17]
Arabella Steinbacher is an exciting musician who has been making an impressive reputation for herself. She is in great demand and already has several excellent recordings under her belt.
With a Bavarian orchestra in a Bavarian hall the making of this disc must have been a delight for the young violinist who is a Bavarian herself. She was born and raised in Munich. According to the booklet for this recording Steinbacher’s instrument is the ‘Muntz’ Stradivari from Cremona (1736). Certainly its rich dark timbre is exceptional and projects splendidly.
Although he wrote his Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra in C minor in 1933 Shostakovich was over forty before he composed his first string concerto, the Violin Concerto No.1. Those immediate post-war years were a time of strict censorship for composers in Soviet Russia. Consequently Shostakovich consigned the unpublished concerto to the drawer for a number of years. In 1955 when the political climate was thought sufficiently ready Shostakovich had the score premièred by the renowned soloist and its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The opus number 77 was altered to 99 at the publication of the full score in 1955, however, the original opus number has now been restored. Well received at its première it is now acknowledged as one of finest examples of the twentieth century.
The four movement concerto opens with a spine-tingling Nocturne (Moderato). This is one of the most disconcerting and mysterious openings to the concerto that I have heard. Rarely has this music seemed so desolate and bleak with an extreme tension that verges on the nerve-shattering. Following on is the demoniacal Scherzo (Allegro) from which Nelsons builds weighty orchestral climaxes of intense emotional impact. Throughout, Steinbacher’s expressive, brisk and committed playing feels perfectly in accord with that of the orchestra. Appearing in the Scherzo is Shostakovich’s DSCH motif described by Robert Dearling as the composer’s, “self-affirming statement of defiance and warning…” (Shostakovich The Man and his Music edited Christopher Norris, pub. Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 1982). Probably the most celebrated movement is the Passacaglia developed from an ostinato emanating from the cellos. In music that has been said to serve as a requiem for the victims of the Stalinist regime Nelsons provides a rock-like power and sinister grandeur. Steinbacher plays an extended and exposed, song-like melody of a marked mournful quality. It is as if her instrument is weeping. The orchestra play an appealing if somewhat incongruous melody. As Nelsons tightens the screw the tension and sheer declamatory power becomes almost unbearable.
From 9:58-14:58 Steinbacher plays an unremitting rhapsodic melody that becomes progressively disconsolate and introverted. The solo line becomes less melodic, increasingly disgruntled and more frenzied. The Final movement Burlesque follows straight on – a vigorous and boisterous Allegro con brio. At last Steinbacher’s dancing violin enjoys a gypsy-like freedom. I loved the memorable but spiky theme partly played pizzicato at 0:39-0:44, 2:01-2:07 and 4:54-5:01. Leaving a quite dramatic impression the concerto ends with uncomfortable abruptness on a wild and breathless note.
Shostakovich’s final concerto, the Violin Concerto No2. was written for his friend and the score’s dedicatee David Oistrakh. He it was who gave the official première in Moscow under conductor Kirill Kondrashin. Intended as the composer’s present for Oistrakh’s sixtieth birthday it seems that Shostakovich was a year too early. Rather undeservedly the shorter C sharp minor Concerto is heard far less in performance than the first Violin Concerto. Unusually, each of the three movements contains a cadenza and some of the double-stopping makes the score extremely challenging.
The C Sharp Minor Concerto commences in a pessimistic manner with a doleful violin pitted against mysterious low strings. It is not long before the character of Steinbacher’s violin part can be interpreted as a desperate cry for attention against oppression. From 8:45 to 10:20 in the cadenza the pace slows with the violin taking on a quieter and more reflective quality. In the final section of the movement, with a stronger sense of bleakness and desolation, the writing has become even more despondent. In the Adagio Steinbacher’s emphatic playing brings more melancholy and reflection. At 0:47-1:20 a lament from the solo flute provides additional emotional pain. Nelsons thickens the orchestral textures before Steinbacher continues her mournful line. From the cadenza at 5:50-6:45 the writing for the soloist maintains its sombre intensity which seems unrelenting. A plaintive solo horn again the orchestra brings the movement to a close. Continuing straight into the finale the mood alters to one that is welcoming and generally upbeat with Steinbacher’s part assuming a sparkling dance-like quality. The complex cadenza (3:54-7:01) is striking for its varied content and tempi. In the appealing final section Nelsons is brisk as if in a race to the finish line with the chattering solo violin.
Steinbacher’s expressive playing is irresistible, delivering strong and forthright interpretations that feel much in accord with Shostakovich’s unique sound-world. With the elite Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Nelsons’ firm control of tempo, pacing and dynamics is highly successful. This impressive and beautifully recorded release deserves considerable praise.
Michael Cookson
This impressive and beautifully recorded release deserves considerable praise.