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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.99 (formerly Op.77) [38:52]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Violin Concerto, Op.82 [20:08]
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 9-10 April 2015 (Shostakovich); 14 December 2015 (Glazunov), The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK
DECCA 4788758 [58:57]

I seem to be making a bad habit of getting behind the curve: John Quinn has already reviewed this recording in very positive terms.

Let me get my minor grumbles out of the way first: I would very much have preferred the programme to have contained the two Shostakovich violin concertos, different though they are. The Shostakovich and Glazunov have little in common except that they were both composed in Russia in the twentieth century by student and teacher.

Yet by the end of the recording I had come to appreciate that they make a better pairing than I had anticipated. There’s another, familiar, problem about the pairing, too, in that it would have been preferable to have left the more powerful work last. There has been recent debate on the subject on the MusicWeb Message Board. I appreciate that most CD players can be re-programmed, but the more expensive your equipment the less likely it is to have such a feature: on my Pioneer SACD player you would have to play tracks 6-9 first, then start again with track 1.

Downloaders are more fortunate, though amateurs are advised to be very cautious about re-numbering the tracks, making copies in another folder first lest by re-numbering they delete a whole track.

Composed in 1947-8, the very year in which Zhdanov issued his notorious decree against ‘formalism’, Shostakovich’s first violin concerto had to wait in abeyance until its dedicatee David Oistrakh performed it in 1955 after the death of Stalin.

Oistrakh recorded the concerto more than once: his mono CBS recording with the New York Philharmonic and Dmitri Mitropoulos appears to be download only (Sony MHK63327, with Cello Concerto No.1, Rostropovich and Ormandy – available from Presto) but his 1959 recording with the Leningrad Orchestra and Evgeny Mravinsky survives as part of a super-budget set which is well worth obtaining (Regis RRC3017, 3 CDs, with Russian Violin Concertos – available from Presto). The reissue which I welcomed on a single Regis CD, with the Cello Concerto No.1, is now download only (RRC1385, available from Presto – see Download Roundup May 2012/1 and review by Michael Cookson). Amazon UK appear to have a few remaining copies of the 3-CD Brilliant Classics super-budget set of the violin, cello and piano concertos which included the first from Oistrakh with Mravinsky and the second with Rozhdestvensky. I have the identical set in an earlier incarnation on Documents and it’s well worth having for the very tempting price.

Needless to say Oistrakh brings out all the power of the music, and very powerful it is, too. His 1956 CBS recording was mono only but still sounds well. There’s an incredibly inexpensive Naxos Classics Archives transfer for £2.39 from Qobuz . I strongly recommend at least streaming one of these or the other Oistrakh recordings to get your bearings on the music, but I’ve chosen a more recent stereo recording, coupling both concertos, as my benchmark, from Lydia Mordkovitch with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Neeme Järvi on lower-mid-price Chandos CHAN10864 – Download News 2015/7 (a reissue of CHAN8820 – DL Roundup June 2009).

The first movement is labelled Nocturne Moderato and though Oistrakh played this at or just under twelve minutes there’s a case for taking it a little slower, as both Mordkovitch and Järvi (12:30) and Benedetti and Karabits (12:56) do. At first I thought the new recording was going to be a little under-powered in this movement but the low-burning fires are soon stoked up for a very positive impression. Maxim Vengerov with the LSO and Mstislav Rostropovich on another well-liked recording are even a few seconds slower at 13:10 (Warner Apex 2564680397, with Concerto No.2, budget-price – review of earlier release). As Terry Barfoot wrote of Vengerov, it is important for any performance of the darker, more introspective aspects of the work to be deeply felt and it’s possible to feel that these three interpretations, not least the new Decca, do that slightly more effectively than Oistrakh in this movement.

There’s close agreement, too, between Benedetti and Mordkovitch in the second movement scherzo and the burlesque finale. Decca divide the third movement between the passaccaglia andante and the cadenza whereas Chandos combine these on one track but, allowing for that, the timings again are close and I thought both performances just right.

It was David Oistrakh, in a broadcast from the Royal Festival Hall in 1965, whose performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto fully convinced me of its quality: technique and feeling superbly combined. Regretfully the recording of that broadcast – review – has been deleted. Those two characteristics are well in evidence in his recordings of the Shostakovich and I never wish to be without access to one or more of these – I’ve just been listening again to the Sony transfer of the Mitropoulos version, as streamed from Qobuz, and greatly enjoying it. (You’ll find the Presto download less expensive, however, than Qobuz.)

At one time those qualities would have been enough to put the CBS/Sony unassailably at the top of the tree. I remember thinking when I bought it in a 3-LP box set (77394) that I had the Shostakovich concertos pretty well sewn up. More recently that recording has been joined at the top of the tree by the Mordkovitch and Vengerov recordings, both attractively priced and combining the two Shostakovich violin concertos. Up to this point in my deliberations Benedetti and Karabits are up there with those top recommendations, but all hinges on whether your choice is for Violin Concerto No.2 as coupling. Admittedly, I don’t find it as compelling a work as its predecessor, but Mordkovitch and Vengerov both make strong cases for it.

While on the subject of Shostakovich, let me remind readers of Andris Nelsons’ recent recording of the Tenth Symphony, which I liked even more than Dan Morgan and as much as John Quinn and Michael Cookson (479 5059 – reviewreviewreview). I have only dipped into his new 2-CD set of Symphonies 5, 8 and 9 and Hamlet music, but it has already gathered golden opinions (479 5201 – reviewreview)*. Those happy with good mp3 will find Symphony No.10 for £4.95 from or but caveat emptor: the lossless download from costs more than the CD. The 2-CD set can be downloaded for £10.78 (mp3), £13.47 (16-bit lossless) or £22.01 (24-bit), with pdf booklet, from Presto.

Some time ago I reviewed the Nimbus Alliance reissue of the Glazunov Violin Concerto with Hideko Udagawa as soloist (NI6316). That’s more logically coupled with music by Tchaikovsky, Chausson, Sarasate and Saint-Saëns and I enjoyed hearing it, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. Unless you are totally put off by the coupling, Nicola Benedetti and Kirill Karabits get much closer to the music, joining my other recommendations of Julia Fischer and Yakov Kreizberg (Pentatone –review), Vadim Gluzman and Andrew Litton (BIS – Download News 2013/3) and Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mstislav Rostropvich (Erato, mid-price – review).

You wouldn’t buy the new Benedetti/Karabits recording for the sake of the Glazunov but it makes a very enjoyable addition to a first-rate version of the Shostakovich. If you prefer the coupling of the two Shostakovich concertos I would still recommend Mordkovitch and Järvi, especially at the attractive new price (around £6.50 – paradoxically, but not uniquely, the lossless download from costs more than the CD, at £7.99). For the coupling with the first cello concerto the Sony combination of Oistrakh and Rostropvich remains indispensable – well worth downloading in addition to any other version you may have.

All round, however, for the quality of Benedetti’s solo playing, orchestral support from the Bournemouth Orchestra and Karabits’ direction, together with very good recording quality – CD only, no SACD, but 24-bit available as a download, with booklet, from Qobuz – this is now my first choice for the Shostakovich, with the Glazunov a welcome bonus. Apart from being printed on mustard-coloured paper and in a small font, the notes are also well worth having.

* But check out Dan Morgan’s even more enthusiastic review of the Fifth from Kurt Sanderling on Berlin Classics 0300750BC. Having edited and converted Dan's review to htm, I listened to that recording and was totally won over.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)



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