It was the score’s dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich who
premièred Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto
in October 1959 at the Leningrad Conservatory with Yevgeny Mravinsky
conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Shostakovich
spent the summer of 1959 composing the four movement concertowhich
is said to be one of the most difficult works in the cello repertory.
A bold four note motif is employed; one very similar to the
composer’s DSCH motif used extensively in a number of
his works. On the cello this motif opens the first movement
Allegretto and is prominent throughout. Shostakovich
had used the term “a humorous/jocular march”
to describe the movement’s character but the writing feels
more sardonic than that. Rostropovich maintains a high intensity
and dramatic tension throughout. I love the animated woodwind
calls that punctuate proceedings. A substantial Moderato
feels like a chilling and unwelcoming landscape laid to waste.
With starkly beautiful playing a dark, austere and deeply reflective
intensity is maintained. Marked Attacca the Cadenza
could easily depict a grave scene of human hopelessness. Playful
or mocking, depending on how one views it, the final Allegro
con motto is a romp full of nervous energy. Over bawling
woodwind and blazing brass the cello digs deep for what seems
like the majority of the movement. In the Coda that bold
motif defiantly recurs in the woodwind and then the horn. Rostropovich
rises splendidly to the challenge with the adept Ormandy holding
everything splendidly in place.
As a first choice I find it hard to look elsewhere than this
outstanding account. However, there are also a couple of other
valuable performances of the First Cello Concerto. In
1984 at the Hercules Hall in Munich, Heinrich Schiff was recorded
in a version that shows both precision and passion. He is accompanied
by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s
son Maxim Shostakovich on Philips 475 7575 (c/w Cello Concerto
No.2, Op. 126). I also hold in high regard the colourfully
expressive account by Mischa Maisky and the London Symphony
Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. Maisky made that recording
in 1993 at the Abbey Road Studios, London and it can be heard
on Deutsche Grammophon 445 821-2 (c/w Cello Concerto No.2,
Shostakovich had already written his Concerto for Piano,
Trumpet and String Orchestra in C minor (1933) and was over
forty before he composed the three movement Violin Concerto
No.1 in A minor. This was his first string concerto and
it was completed in 1948. Those immediate post-war years were
a time of strict censorship for composers in Soviet Russia.
Consequently it was consigned unpublished to the drawer. In
October 1955 when he thought the political climate sufficiently
improved Shostakovich had the score premièred by the
renowned soloist and its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad
Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky. Well received at its première
ithas become acknowledged as one of the finest of the
twentieth century. The opus number of 77 was altered to 99 at
the publication of the full score in 1955, however, the original
opus number has now been restored. Shostakovich again uses his
DSCH motif prominently. With the violin playing almost continually
the four movement score opens with a Nocturne (Moderato).
This is a most disconcerting and mysterious opening with Oistrakh
asserting a spine-tingling atmosphere straight away. It’s
powerfully desolate, bleak and extremely tense; nerve-shattering
stuff. In the resolute and demonic Scherzo (Allegro)
Mravinsky builds weighty orchestral climaxes of real emotional
impact. Oistrakh’s brisk and committed playing feels perfectly
in accord with the orchestra. Making an appearance in the Scherzo
is that motif. Probably the most notable movement is the profound
Passacaglia. This develops from an ostinato figure
emanating from the cellos. In music that has been said to serve
as a requiem for victims of the Stalinist regime Mravinsky with
sinister grandeur conjures a granitic power. As if his instrument
was crying deeply Oistrakh plays an extended, exposed, potently
mournful, song. The Leningrad orchestra responds with an appealing
if somewhat incongruous melody. Mravinsky tightens the screw
and the sheer declamatory power of the orchestra becomes almost
unbearable. Oistrakh plays a demanding cadenza that is
progressively disconsolate, introverted and unremittingly rhapsodic.
The solo line becomes less melodic, increasingly disgruntled
and more frenzied. Following straight on the Finale,
a Burlesque (Allegro con brio) is forceful and
boisterous. I love the recurring memorable but spiky motto theme.
The concerto ends abruptly on a wild and breathless note.
In the case of the First Violin Concerto,for playing
which is beautiful, dramatically intense and extraordinarily
exciting I have to give the highest possible praise to the 2006
Munich account by Arabella Steinbacher. She can be heard with
the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on
Orfeo C 687 061 A (c/w Violin Concerto No.2, Op.129).
Regis is the master of reissues at super budget prices. They
would inspire more confidence if they were to provide more detailed
information about the origins of the performances. Although
occasionally a touch muddy I found the sound of both recordings
more than acceptable for their age.
These excellent Shostakovich performances from Rostropovich
and Oistrakh are a snip at the price.