SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Violin Concerto No. 1 – Mstislav Rostropovich, c./The Philadelphia Orch./Eugene Ormandy/Leonard Bernstein, piano and cond./New York Philharmonic/David Oistrakh, v./Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./Evgeni Mravinsky – Praga Digitals

Historic recordings of these sometimes troublesome masterworks.

Published on December 15, 2012

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Violin Concerto No. 1 – Mstislav Rostropovich, c./The Philadelphia Orch./Eugene Ormandy/Leonard Bernstein, piano and cond./New York Philharmonic/David Oistrakh, v./Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./Evgeni Mravinsky – Praga Digitals mono/stereo SACD PRD/DSD 350 059, 79:31 [9/12/12] (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) ****:

It is impossible to listen casually to Shostakovich. So many of his works sound eclectic in style, emotionally schizoid and leaving the impression that the composer was dealing with things beyond his control that find their voice in his music. Of course, this was usually the case and is with these three very important masterworks, performed here in the landmark recordings by the artists who premiered or promoted them.

Each of these works is brilliant and commanding but so atypical of what listeners at the time must have expected a concerto to sound like. The Cello Concerto No.1 is, in many ways, one of Shostakovich’s most disparate creations. Modeled after the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto (for cello and orchestra), the first movement is buoyant, driving, and has a simple nearly cheeky structure to it formed from a four note motive that can fit a number of harmonic templates. The second movement is poignant and folk like but with a palpable tension. A long wrenching cadenza connects the slow movement to what is actually the finale, a rondo characterized by some highly chromatic and somewhat strident wind utterances.  The great Rostropovich plays with all the technical prowess and angst required, led with precision by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia at what many consider the height of their reputation.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 has a stormy history and remains a controversial component of Shostakovich’s oeuvre. The opening is bright and energetic but odd. There is a near lack of sophistication to the effects; the composer having envisioned the work as something young players could master (in particular, his son, Maxim, now a renowned conductor). The lightness and near Baroque quality of the first movement is intruded on by some boisterous outbursts in the winds and is quite shattered by the second movement. The Andante has a simplicity and even a slight sadness to it. The principle theme is lovely, with a child-like quality that hardly sounds like it came from the same work. The final Allegro is brilliant and crisp but a bit controversial for its brazen quotes from some of the Hanon keyboard exercises that young players often study. This concerto has never really gained a major foothold in the standard performing repertory and Shostakovich himself felt poorly about it for a long time, decrying its “(absolute) lack of artistic or idealistic value” to his friends. This key performance by Bernstein – a long time promoter of Shostakovich’s music – and the New York Philharmonic at the height of their prowess makes a strong case for the merits of this oddly compelling piece.

The Violin Concerto, performed by its dedicatee David Oistrakh, is quite another matter. Written laboriously over eight years (1947-1955), this is an example of Shostakovich at his most bitter; sad and disillusioned by events in his post-world-war Russia – then the full ideological embodiment of the USSR. A big four movement work, the Concerto opens with a long, poignant Notturno and a very unsettling moderato. The subsequent scherzo is breathtaking in its effect and is outrageously difficult for the soloist. The third, a Passacaglia, is unrelentingly dark with echoes of the Symphony #8 at hand with a very prominent and somber horn part leading to the mournful violin solo. This mood is shattered (a description I find appropriate to a lot of Shostakovich transitions) by the brief, very folk-Russian burlesque (which will remind some of the more sarcastic approach he frequently took) This brief movement brings this massive and gripping work to a bold close.

David Oistrakh worked with the composer for many years and with much debate. Oistrakh is said to have not been an instant fan of the work but persevered and practiced and collaborated with Shostakovich to get it ‘right.’  This close affiliation actually has made the Concerto a bit inaccessible for any soloist not up to the work’s unique technical demands. Another impediment was placed on its success by Stalin, with whom Shostakovich was a bit out of favor. The work was finally recorded and given a proper premiere by Oistrakh and Dmitri Mitropoulos. The present mono recording was made in 1955 and gave the work its first Leningrad exposure and was received with the accolades it deserves.

There are many reasons to recommend this landmark set of recordings. The performances are excellent, and historic, and the reproduction and mastering by Praga is quite good. This also provides a fine mini-lesson on the art and troubled existence by one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers. My personal favorite work here is the Violin Concerto No.1 and I am quite familiar with the brilliant first Cello Concerto, but the Piano Concerto No.2, which I did not know, is weird but captivating.  I think that this would appeal to almost anyone but is an essential addition to anyone who wants to have a “complete” Shostakovich collection.

—Daniel Coombs




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