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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor op. 99 (1948) [36:08]
Violin Concerto No.2 in C sharp minor op. 129 (1967) [32:01]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Helsinki Phiharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 27-28, 30 November 2013, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
ONDINE ODE1239-2 [68:23]

After the death of Stalin in 1953, there was a gradual relaxation of the persecution of Soviet artists. A reign of terror had previously been carried out under the supervision of his henchman Andrei Zhdanov, who had been appointed in 1946 to direct the Soviet Union's cultural policy. By 1956 when the composer was 50, under the more relaxed regime of Nikita Khrushchev, compositions that had been hidden away for fear of disciplinary actions were beginning to emerge. One such was Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 which had actually been written in 1947-8 for the David Oistrakh. The work had been initially withheld as its composer was considered a formalist - one who did not conform to the ideals of the Soviet state. Oistrakh premiered the concerto in 1955 with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky.

By 1966, under Brezhnev, the climate cooled somewhat and the oppressive regime took its toll on the composer’s heath – he suffered a heart-attack. After a period of recuperation he began work on his Second Violin Concerto in May 1967. Again the dedicatee was Oistrakh, the source of inspiration for the work, who premiered it in September of that year.

Christian Tetzlaff, the violinist in this new recording, is one of the most high profile artists on the international concert circuit today. With a repertoire ranging from Bach to Berg his interpretations have garnered high praise, with the accolade of ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ from Musical America in 2009. He also performs chamber music, having formed his own quartet in 1994, which includes his cellist sister Tanja Tetzlaff.

In the opening Nocturne of the Concerto No. 1, Storgårds sets the tone, conjuring up the dark brooding atmosphere which ushers in the violin’s long monologue. Throughout the movement the conductor is sensitive to the contours of the violin’s narrative. The harp and celesta section is particularly vivid. The Scherzo launches into a playful dialogue between soloist and woodwinds. The incessant banter is underpinned by verve and gusto. There’s a real ruggedness in the violin playing which gives the performance real energy and drive. The Passacaglia, which feels to me like the centre of gravity of the work, ends in a wonderful, impressive cadenza – a technical tour de force. This leads without a break into a rhythmically incisive and frenetic Burlesque.

With smaller forces, the Second Concerto isn’t as well-known as the first, and doesn’t reveal its secrets as easily. Again there is an emotional anguish underlying the first movement. Tetzlaff modifies his tone from warmth in the lyrical sections to biting grit when the harshness and dissonance of the score asks for it. In the Adagio he captures the melancholic and nostalgic undercurrents. One feels the loneliness and isolation in the atmosphere evoked. A slow introduction precedes the dance-like finale. Storgårds points the orchestral interjections with precision and élan. The percussion section is captured vividly in this master-stroke of scoring.

The Helsinki Music Centre offers an ideal acoustic, allowing orchestral definition to emerge with clarity. The sound is absolutely terrific. The recording engineers have to be praised for achieving an ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. Whilst Oistrakh’s 1956 recording of the Op. 99 with the New York Philharmonic under Mitropoulos and the Op. 129 with the Moscow Philharmonic under Kondrashin from the 1960s have always been benchmarks for me, these performances from Ondine offer worthy alternatives in state-of-the-art sound quality. Tetzlaff’s interpretative insights into these complex scores set the bar high. I have no hesitation in nominating this release as a Recording of the Month.

Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich violin concertos