Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1947-48, rev. 1955) [31:28]
Violin Concerto No 2 in C Sharp minor, Op. 129 (1967) [29:23]
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/Alan Gilbert
rec. live, 6, 9 December, 2012 (Op. 77); 29-30 October, 2015 (Op. 129), Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. DSD
BIS BIS-2247 SACD [61:41]

For reasons that will become clear I’ll deal with the Second Concerto first. This concerto was dedicated to David Oistrakh, as was its predecessor. He premiered it in October 1967 and made a recording of it that same year. I’m not sure if the recording in question is currently available except as part of an invaluable Melodiya cycle of the symphonies (review). It’s relevant to note that Zimmermann’s overall playing time is almost identical to Oistrakh’s 29:35, as are their respective timings for the individual movements.

Zimmermann and Gilbert make a meditative start to the first movement, which is marked Moderato. However both music and performance soon increase in energy and intensity. The second subject (3:44) is much more spiky in nature and the present performance benefits from highly alert and pointed playing from soloist and orchestra. As this section progresses the music becomes stormy and quite acidic and one noticeable feature is Shostakovich’s use of tom-toms in the percussion department; I can’t recall many, if any, other instances where he uses this instrument. The performance is sharp, incisive and assertive. The cadenza (8:10 – 9:30) is demanding of the soloist; here the first subject is revisited in particular. The close of the movement is largely based on the second subject; in these pages the music is shadowy and the present performance is very well managed. The Oistrakh recording is nearly fifty years old and, unsurprisingly, it can’t compete sonically, not least because the soloist is very prominently balanced – BIS manage the balance exceptionally well. In fact, on the Melodiya recording you hear the soloist with the orchestra in the background. Oistrakh’s playing is intense from his very first entry and throughout the movement he really grabs the listener’s attention, and not just on account of the balance. Oistrakh offers a formidable performance and he’s helped by the presence on the podium of a noted Shostakovich interpreter in the shape of Kirill Kondrashin. Nonetheless, Zimmermann and Gilbert stand up very well in the face of this competition.

In the words of the notes the character of the second movement, an Adagio, “seems to oscillate between despairing melancholy and solitude.” Zimmermann gives a highly introspective accent of the solo part while Gilbert projects the accompaniment, which is often quite spare, with great understanding. Though Zimmermann’s playing is intense I have the sense that it’s emotionally as well as technically controlled. The music is very exposed for both soloist and orchestra and it’s extremely well done here. As an example of the high quality of both the performance and the recording I’d cite the brief passage (from 4:54) where the bassoon has a counter melody to the soloist’s line. The bassoonist’s tone is absolutely ideal and the sound of his or her instrument is perfectly captured and in ideal, realistic relation to the soloist. After the brief, partially accompanied cadenza (from 5:22) the way Zimmermann brings the movement to a close is deeply-felt and soulful. Oistrakh dominates his recorded performance in every sense. It’s a profound experience though the BIS recorded balance gives a much more truthful presentation of the composer’s overall intentions.

The finale follows without a break. The music is scampering and calls for great virtuosity. This need for virtuosity extends to the orchestra who must be absolutely precise in their pithy interjections. Under Gilbert’s guidance that’s exactly what’s achieved here. The music is in Shostakovich’s most biting sardonic vein, not least through the interjections from the horns and also the prominence given at times to the forceful tom-toms. Zimmermann has to be on his mettle in the hair-raising cadenza (3:53 – 5:45) but, naturally, he is. From that point on until the end the performance is absolutely terrific, the music strongly projected. In this movement – and especially at the start – the very forward balance accorded to Oistrakh is rather too much of a good thing. One relishes his outstanding virtuosity - not least in the astringent cadenza, where the sparks really fly – but the orchestra is rather overpowered.

Oistrakh’s recording will always have a special place in the Shostakovich pantheon but Zimmermann, who is recorded in infinitely better sound, more than measures up to the dedicatee’s competition.

Oistrakh was intimately involved in the gestation of the First Concerto. It is dedicated to him and he premiered it when it was eventually given its first performance in 1955. Between the completion of the work in 1948 and the premiere I believe he also provided input into the revisions that Shostakovich made to the score.

I said I had a reason for considering this concerto second. A note in very small print in the booklet tells us that in Op. 77 Zimmermann “has based his performance of the solo part on the autograph manuscript (with the composer’s own metronome markings and bowing instructions), and not on the usually-heard version edited by David Oistrakh.” There is no further reference to this in the notes but I suspect that’s because the notes, which are good in themselves, have been adapted with permission from what I take to be earlier essays written by two different authors.

I didn’t have access to a score so I’m not able to provide chapter and verse regarding Zimmermann’s approach to the concerto and how it differs from the 1955 revision. However, by chance I heard BBC Radio 3’s Record Review programme on 21 January when Andrew McGregor featured this recording. He explained that the composer’s metronome mark for the first movement is crotchet = 76 whereas in his early recordings from the 1950s and 1960s Oistrakh “hovers” between 50 and 60 crotchets to the minute. He added that Oistrakh used “lingering rubato”. There was no mention of the third movement but I wonder if Zimmermann has also reverted to an original metronome marking in that movement. Unfortunately, I did not have an Oistrakh recording to hand – a culpable gap in my collection. However, I see that his 1956 recording with Mravinsky plays for 37:19 (review). In the absence of an Oistrakh comparison I turned instead to Nicola Benedetti’s 2015 studio recording, which I reviewed and admired not long ago; this takes 38:49.

Though I’m not in a position to comment on details of bowing I noticed two things about Zimmermann’s recording almost at once. One was a matter of detail: he makes use of upward portamento more than once in the opening phrases. I can’t recall hearing this done before and Nicola Benedetti doesn’t use this expressive device. The second was a much more significant thing: the tempo. Zimmerman’s speed is much easier and flowing than Benedetti’s. She and her conductor, Kirill Karabits follow most performances that I’ve heard in adopting a measured, brooding speed which creates a mood akin to that of the great first movement of the Tenth Symphony. I can imagine some listeners might be disposed against Zimmermann’s performance almost at once, feeling it to be lightweight. I can only implore them to persevere for this refreshing approach brings its own rewards.

In the hands of Zimmermann and Gilbert there’s a leanness to the music in the opening pages. It’s very different to what we’re accustomed to hearing but I can only report that I felt no lack of tension of emotional engagement. Benedetti is hugely impressive in her more traditional approach but I found myself being caught up in the Zimmermann performance. As well as his persuasive artistry I think the recording helps. BIS give us a very realistic concert hall perspective in which Zimmermann is prominent but not excessively so. In comparison one feels too close to the performers in the Decca recording for Benedetti. The excellence of the beautifully balanced, clear BIS sound can be illustrated by the subdued passage between about 4:00 and 5:19 – and even more so when the harp joins the texture at 4:32. The sound hereabouts is bewitching. The Decca sound is heavier and even a bit oppressive. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; the sound is of a piece with the weightier approach. In passing, that passage also gives an idea of the relative pacing of the two performances. Zimmermann arrives at that point in the score at 4:00; Benedetti reaches it at 5:40.

Once we’re past that passage the tone of the music becomes more troubled and turbulent; Zimmermann and Gilbert are fully convincing here. Throughout the movement the soloist’s control of line and tone is masterly and the orchestral contribution is very fine indeed. The BIS performance of this movement plays for 9:07, which is significantly shorter than the 12:56 timing of Benedetti and Karabits. I don’t resile from my admiration of the Decca performance but, on reflection, I’m now inclined to think that that the pacing and general approach in the Zimmermann reading is more what I have in mind for a movement entitled ‘Nocturne’. Maybe the composer’s first thoughts were preferable? Or, if not preferable then still very worthy of note.

There’s not a great deal to choose between the respective accounts of the Scherzo. The timings of both performances are well-nigh identical and in each case the soloists and their conductors give terrific performances of this biting, driven movement.

I said earlier that I am not sure if Zimmermann’s observance of Shostakovich’s metronome marks has extended beyond the first movement but I rather suspect it’s the case with the ‘Passacaglia’. Once again the respective timings are instructive. Nicola Benedetti takes 14:41 and she reaches the cadenza, which Decca include on a separate track, after 9:22. By contrast Zimmermann takes 11:05 in total and he reaches the cadenza at 6:50. As you may surmise, his tempo is quite swift although this doesn’t prevent him from being very eloquent indeed. At first he spins a melancholy song over the passacaglia but his playing becomes more tortured as Shostakovich racks up the emotional temperature. His approach complements the way in which he delivered the first movement and I’m inclined to think that he could not have paired the flowing approach to the ‘Nocturne’ with the sort of expansive, highly intense account of the ‘Passacaglia’ that we hear from Nicola Benedetti: the two approaches would have clashed. Benedetti is very fine indeed in the ‘Passacaglia’. I’m not yet quite as persuaded by Zimmermann’s way with the movement as I was by his rendition of the ‘Nocturne’ – but I’m very nearly there. He’s superb in the cadenza; ruminative at first and then impassioned and virtuosic.

In both performances the concluding ‘Burlesque’ is fast and furious. Zimmermann displays terrific virtuosity and he and Gilbert whirl the music to a thrilling conclusion which I bet brought the house down in Hamburg. We can’t tell because there’s no applause after either concerto; I know many listeners prefer that. In fact, though both recordings were made live there is no intrusive audience noise at all.

This is a very fine disc indeed. Frank Peter Zimmermann is a superb advocate for both concertos and he receives magnificent support from the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester and Alan Gilbert who was their Principal Guest Conductor between 2004 and 2015. The performance of the First Violin Concerto differs from what we’re used to but one can only applaud Zimmermann for going back to the original manuscript and thereby giving us such a valuable and refreshing perspective on this great concerto. It’s just a pity that the documentation doesn’t give us more information on this important aspect of the performance.

I listened to this disc as an SACD, albeit in stereo rather than surround sound. It’s a very fine production. The sound is clear, crisp, expertly balanced and with just the right concert hall ambience. BIS have done a very fine job indeed and I do hope that they’ll soon be able to record this orchestra in the new concert hall in Hamburg, which is their new home.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Marc Bridle ~ Michael Cookson

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