Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shostakovich's concertos

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the tenth installment, I re-examine the concertos of my favourite composer born in the 20th century: Russian grandmaster Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Cello Concerto 1 in E-flat major (op.107, 1959)
My version: Schiff/Symphonie orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/M.Shostakovich (Philips, 1984, 28 min)
The opening Allegretto immediately states the main theme, a four note motto, which gets most of the attention throughout this march-like piece. There is an inherent nervousness about this movement that I still find unsettling. The slow Moderato partners the cello with the horn to great effect, although with a general grave feeling rather than luscious melodies - and with some heavenly celesta playing over the high register of the cello near the end. The following extended cadenza of over 6 minutes gives the soloist the chance to shine both technically and emotionally - it was after all composed for Rostropovich. The short Final Allegro comes back to the somewhat overused four notes theme.  In the end, there are good parts to this concerto (especially the Moderato and the Cadenza) but I find it not completely convincing.

My version: Schiff/Symphonie orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/M.Shostakovich (Philips, 1984, 33 min)
Kicking off with a Largo really sets the scene. Pensive, withdrawn, the contrast with the first movement of the first cello concerto could not be more pronounced. This is bleak music, foreshadowing compositions like the 14th symphony in mood. A short scherzo-like Allegretto provides some contrast, before French horn fanfares announce the final movement, another Allegretto. Shostakovich really pulls out the stops in this one, with cadenza's, marches, dances and lyrical sections - before it ends as the first movement began, in solemn quietness.  Without doubt, this a great concerto, even though it falls short of the best in the genre - or the best by Shostakovich for that matter.

Piano concerto 1 in C minor (op.35, 1933)
My version: Alexeev/English Chamber orchestra/Maksymiuk (EMI, 1983, 24 min)
This relatively early work is fun right from the start, sometimes even bordering on slapstick. The huge role of the trumpet is remarkable, at times it sound like a double concerto. The four movements form one continuum without pauses. The first movement sets the scene with the piano and trumpet dueling like around a circus ring. The unashamedly romantic and absolutely beautiful Lento that follows starts dream-like in its softness, but gradually gets a darker undertone - until the mood returns to quietness, which even the trumpet underlines. A short subdued scherzo-like Moderato paves the way for the Allegro con brio finale which brings us back to the circus, in the galloping lines for piano set off against the trumpet's frolics. Not amongst the very best piano concertos of all time, but fun to listen to, and more complicated than one would think on a casual listen.

My version: Alexeev/English Chamber orchestra/Maksymiuk (EMI, 1983, 19 min)
This very mature work starts off with a march-like theme set against an almost military orchestration. However, this march is not demonic or resigned, but recalls the wit of the first piano concerto in its bright atmosphere.The andante is amongst the most hauntingly beautiful slow movements ever composed for a piano concerto. Scored for piano, strings and a single horn, this moving nocturnal piece recalls the melodic style of Rachmaninov and even Tchaikovsky. The Allegro Finale is as upbeat as one can get with this composer, piano and orchestra racing one another to a fantastic climax. Perhaps not rich in chances of demonstrating virtuosity, this one still remains amongst my all-time favourite piano concertos. Very close to hors concours.

Violin concerto 1 in A minor (op.77 or op.99, 1948)
My version: Mordkovitch/Scottish National orchestra/Jarvi (Chandos, 1989, 38 min)
This concerto starts with a brooding and mysterious Nocturne, which is immediately recognizable as vintage Shostakovich. Particularly beautiful is the ghostly celeste sequence in the second half. The whole first movement reflects the torments in the composer's soul at a time when the communist party wanted to see patriotic music composed and nothing else - it took seven years after its completion before its first public performance. The following demonic Scherzo bounces around to give a welcome relief in mood, with every chance for the soloist to shine, in almost circus music like passages. The slow Passacaglia is the centre of the piece, lasting almost 15 minutes. Solemn fanfares give way to a beautiful bitter sweet melody line for the violin, getting more and more quiet. In the end, the violin is left on its own, in a prolonged cadenza, which paves the way to the exuberant finale, a folk dance like Burlesque in best Shostakovich manner. This is not an easy concerto to appreciate, but repeated listening has catapulted it straight into my top 10 favourite violin concertos of all time. Essential, and close to being hors concours.

Violin Concerto 2 in C-sharp minor (op.129, 1967)
My version: Mordkovitch/Scottish National orchestra/Jarvi (Chandos, 1989, 31 min)
Coming from his most enigmatic period of composing, this is an impressive work. Moments of despair and relief intermix in the opening Moderato - and I was struck to read that he composed this less than a year after his heart attack. In my current situation, I can quite relate to those mixed feelings as well. The Adagio movement brings little change in mood - in fact one critic characterized it as unrelieved melancholy. Heart breaking and agonizingly beautiful, with exquisite lines for the horn. As in the first violin concerto, a cadenza (be it shorter) paves the way for the final movement, a rondo that is fast but still relatively introvert. A very personal, not very accessible masterpiece. Just below the first in my ranking, but still in the top 12 of violin concertos.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: none
Essential: Piano concerto 2, Violin concertos 1,2
Important: Cello concerto 2, Piano concerto 1
Good to have: Cello concerto 1
Not required: none