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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77 (1948) [37:08]
Violin Concerto No.2 in C sharp minor Op.129 (1967) [33:28]
Ivan Pochekin (violin)
Russian National Orchestra/Valentin Uryupin
rec. 2019, Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
PROFIL PH19073 [70:50]

Pairing the two Shostakovich violin concerti on a single recording makes good musical/artistic sense and results in a generously filled disc to boot. That being the case, it is a popular and effective coupling with many impressive versions by famous violinists vying for attention. Entering that competitive field is this new disc from Ivan Pochekin accompanied by the excellent Russian National Orchestra. I had not heard Pochekin's playing before. As a winner of the 2005 Paganini Competition in Moscow, no surprise to hear that he is fully up to the considerable technical demands of these demanding works. Likewise, the Russian National Orchestra are caught in full and detailed sound recorded in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory - a venue closely associated with many famous performers, premieres and concerts.

These two concerti were written at very different but equally significant points in Shostakovich's life. The 1948 Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77 comes from one of the darkest and most dangerous phases of that life. In early 1948 Shostakovich was one of the composers denounced as formalist by the Central Committee. This was not the time therefore to release a work full of musical echoes and personal references. Hence alongside its near companion work - From Jewish Folk Poetry Op.79 - Shostakovich consigned the work to a bottom drawer where it stayed until after the death of Stalin with both works receiving their premieres in 1955. This is arguably Shostakovich's greatest concertante work, fusing personal profundities and a chilling musical portrait of its time. In its four movement form some consider it a symphony-concerto and by its scale alone running to nearly forty minutes it is Shostakovich's longest work in the concerto genre - just edging out the second cello concerto.

Both concerti were written for and inspired by David Oistrakh, who has left seminal multiple recordings of both works. Impossible not to use these performances as a musical reference and measure against which other versions must be judged. An Oistrakh pupil, Lydia Mordkovitch, made an enduringly impressive recording with Neeme Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (as was) way back in 1989. This was - from memory - one of the first recordings to exploit the capacity of the CD format to couple both concerti on a single disc. The music fits Jarvi's fiery and dramatic style to a tee and no real surprise this disc won a Gramophone Award on its original release. Thirty years down the line, it still deserves serious consideration. On this new disc, as mentioned, Pochekin has little to fear from his many illustrious competitors in terms of pure technique. He is also willing to sacrifice sheer tonal beauty to fit the often bleak and unforgiving nature of the music. That said, I find his emotional range more limited than some. The extended opening Nocturne of the 1st concerto lacks the frozen lamenting sorrow that others find. Likewise I find the Russian National Orchestra under Valentin Uryupin to be rather surprisingly emotionally distanced. The playing - both solo and ensemble - is impeccable but without the edge and commitment of the finest performances. I also miss the old-fashioned sound of Russian/Soviet orchestras which this group had in their earliest days which seems to have been ironed out by years of international travel.

I reviewed a set of the complete concerti conducted by Alexander Sladkovsky with his Tatarstan National SO. They have retained something of that sound and although the Melodiya recording is not the equal of this new Hännsler disc, the ear soon adjusts and the listener is swept along by the authenticity of Sladkovsky's approach. Sladkovsky used six different soloists for the six concerti - all Tchaikovsky competition prize winners - which gives some idea of the depth of talent not only in Russia but around the world. Another 'old-school' Russian player is Ilya Kaler who plays with the kind of authoritative power and attack that characterised violin playing in the Soviet Union. His Naxos performances are accompanied by the ever reliable Antoni Wit and the Polish National RSO and again I hear more personality from all concerned than in this new recording.

When it comes to pure technical playing in the cadenza of the first concerto which links the third movement Passacaglia to the madly swirling closing Burlesque Pochekin is very good indeed. But listen to other players - with Oistrakh leading the way - who find more "music" in this very extended cadenza - which includes one of the first explicit uses of the composer's musical inscription DSCH. I particularly like Sergey Khachatryan's recording with Kurt Masur at this point. The range of tone and expression he finds is quite remarkable and he builds the momentum into the finale with extraordinarily compelling brilliance.

The second concerto was the composer's last in the genre and although he still had another eight years to live the mood is more pensive and fragmentary. As such it is a more elusive work than the earlier concerto. Pochekin chooses a more febrile tone with a faster more intense vibrato which is actually quite similar to Oistrakh in his recording with Kondrashin. The difference is that the older violinist thins out the tone as well giving the sound a strangely ethereal and disembodied quality which in the opening pages is powerfully effective. Again Uryupin's accompaniment is strangely literal and matter of fact lacking the little nudges in tempo, tone and dynamic that marks out more empathetic interpretations. Sladkovsky is very good here, as is Wit and Kondrashin. This is a point where Jarvi tends to push through the music with little nuance. In line with his later works, Shostakovich's orchestral scoring is leaner with interlocking figurations rather than thick vertical writing. For some reason I find that Uryupin's performance does not quite cohere as well as some. This might be in part due to the quite close recording which prevents the instrumentation blending as it might with a fraction more distance from player to microphone. Certainly, the Hänssler engineers place the soloist front and centre with his part always clearly audible even in the heavy orchestral passages - Melodiya for example push Sladkovsky's soloists further back into the orchestral group in a rather cavernous acoustic. The closeness of the sound on this new disc might also account for the loss of some truly quiet playing - Pochekin rarely sounds emotionally vulnerable or weak - two characteristics that I think can enhance the narrative of both works.

The liner booklet is in German and English only and is one of the poorest I have encountered recently. Of the eight pages in English the second concerto merits twenty-four words. A Q&A interview is substituted. I am certain Pochekin's insights into these works extend far beyond the four banal answers to banal questions he gives here. The rest of the liner consists of artist (and orchestra) biographies. As mentioned, the catalogue is full of versions of either and both concertos from all the most celebrated players of very decade since they were first performed. The several versions I know represent a tiny fraction of that whole but fine though Pochekin undoubtedly is as a player, his musical insights cannot match others. Likewise, Uryupin is a safe but far from insightful accompanist. The standard CD resolution recording is good; rich detailed and full but that is not enough to make this disc especially recommendable. Remarkable music in technically skilled but not especially insightful performances.

Nick Barnard

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