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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Violin Concerto No. 1 / RIHM, W.: Gesungene Zeit (Van Zweden, Waart, Peskó)
Composed in 1947–48 but unperformed until 1955, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is one of the great concertos of the twentieth century. The wide emotional range of its four-movement structure encompasses an opening of brooding, elegiac melancholy, a manic scherzo, a harrowing and deeply felt passacaglia, and a brilliant, concluding burlesque. Wolfgang Rihm has been described as ‘one of the most approachable, engaging and profound composers writing music today’ (The Guardian). The solo violin in Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant) plays one long fine-spun melody, the work creating a maximum of expression with a minimum of means.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1905–1975): Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op 77
Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952): Gesungene Zeit
Dmitry Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op 77 (1947–48)
The First Violin Concerto of Dmitry Shostakovich was completed in March 1948, just after he had been accused, along with other leading Russian composers including Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, of Western-style ‘formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies’ by party dogmatists led by Andrey Zhdanov. Shostakovich, therefore, felt compelled to suppress his concerto until 1955 (two years after Stalin’s death) when it was given its première by David Oistrakh, the work’s dedicatee, in Leningrad on 29 October with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky. During an enthusiastic reception, the conductor lifted the score towards the audience as though to include the new work in the ovation.
Shostakovich calls for large but distinctive forces, including triple woodwind, four horns, tuba, two harps, celesta and a modest percussion section, but omits trumpets and trombones. Unusually, there are four movements, a design also employed in the First Cello Concerto of 1959, reflecting both works’ symphonic breadth and intensity. Formal originality is also evident in the first movement, a hypnotically poised Nocturne with sonata elements instead of the expected bold statement in conventional sonata-form. This deeply felt soliloquy in A minor unfolds via the soloist’s long and rhapsodic line, constantly reacting to a frequently recurring undulating idea introduced on lower strings. Whilst the shadowed first half operates mainly within deeper registers as the sonorous violin line is supported by low woodwind, in the second half the soloist introduces more vertiginous phrases, refined by triplet figurations, with colourful, if restrained, contributions from harp, celesta and tam-tam (this is the only movement in which these instruments appear). After an eerie version of the main idea on celesta and harp, there is a marked increase in expressive intensity culminating in a virtuosic chordal passage for the soloist, eloquent and anguished. In a brief, desolate coda, the triplet-laced solo line vaporises into the ether and the ghostly episode on harp harmonics and celesta is summoned up once more before the movement closes with a soft tap on the tam-tam.
In contrast to the repressed, meditative and virtually monothematic opening movement, the following bitterly ironic scherzo is protean in its thematic invention, crackling with febrile, mocking energy. Its garrulous main dance tune is introduced on flute and bass clarinet, whilst the soloist gruffly spits out disjointed and sharply accented interjections. The woodwinds later generate a four-note figure taken up in declamatory octaves by the soloist: this is the first incarnation of Shostakovich’s celebrated DSCH (D – E flat – C – B natural) musical signature, anticipating its use in the Tenth Symphony (1953) and Eighth String Quartet (1960). A trio-like central section is dominated by a wildly exuberant idea in a Chasidic dance rhythm. Throughout this movement the solo violin part is powered by bravura passagework, culminating in the presto coda’s technical fireworks.
Profound emotions resurface in the F minor Andante slow movement. This nobly lamenting passacaglia—a set of variations above an unchanging bass line—forms the heart and soul of the piece. It is based upon a broadly conceived seventeen-bar theme announced on cellos and basses embellished by an imposing, portentous horn fanfare and reinforced by bold timpani strokes. Eight variations follow, of which the first gives the theme to the tuba and contrabassoon accompanied by a haunting and liturgical-sounding chorale-like idea on cor anglais, clarinets and bassoons (flutes and piccolos remain silent throughout this movement). The soloist, who enters in the second variation, provides increasingly eloquent counter-themes as the main melody processes through various instrumental groups. A fiercely expressive climax is reached in the sixth variation, scored for strings only. By the time of the eighth and final variation, the opening material returns, pared down and subdued, with the theme given to timpani and pizzicato strings, whilst the soloist intones the initial horn fanfares.
These declamations build into upwardly striving arpeggios, announcing the intricate and substantial cadenza, which goes beyond the customary testing of the player’s virtuosity. In addition to fulfilling the crucial role of a bridge between slow movement and finale, it develops ideas already encountered, such as the DSCH motif and Jewish dance from the scherzo and the passacaglia’s fanfares, as well as anticipating material from the ensuing finale as it gathers pace. Virtually a separate movement, this cadenza is almost the equal of the finale in terms of duration and surpasses it in symphonic weight.
Briefest and most Russian-sounding of the four movements, the vigorous and lively closing Burlesque revisits the scoring and character of the scherzo, including its dance-like elements. The opening rondo theme is written in the style of a trepak; originally Shostakovich gave it to the violin, but Oistrakh persuaded him to allow the soloist a crucial break after the emotional and physical strain of the cadenza. Accordingly, the composer entrusted the woodwinds and xylophone with the principal melody. The passacaglia theme reappears unexpectedly, like a spectre at the feast, in a bitingly sardonic version on woodwind and xylophone, before the relentlessly knockabout coda leads to an abrupt, trenchant conclusion which avoids pessimism rather than exuding optimism.
So ends one of Shostakovich’s most gripping and affecting works. Its success as a superb vehicle for a consummate violinist is achieved within the context of a sincere and profoundly personal statement.
Wolfgang Rihm: Gesungene Zeit (1991–92)
One of the leading German composers of his generation, Wolfgang Rihm was born in Karlsruhe in 1952 and came to prominence with the successful première of his orchestral work Morphonie-Sektor IV at the 1974 Donaueschingen Contemporary Music Festival. Since then his prolific output has featured several major works in traditional genres such as string quartets, concertos and operas. Though he has been labelled a neo-romantic, his directly expressive style is avowedly eclectic and embraces classical restraint as well as dramatic fantasy. Within the context of a keen interest in many traditions, Rihm is in touch with his Austro-German roots but he is just as likely to adopt a subversive approach to his heritage as he is to pay homage to it.
‘To me, instrumental virtuosity is an enhancement of vocal abilities. In the highest register of the instrument, the drawn-out timbre of the violin develops, sung, not played’: these words from the composer capture the essence of his solo instrumental writing in Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant). Subtitled ‘music for violin and orchestra’, it was commissioned by Paul Sacher for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Rihm had her playing in mind when he wrote the piece, especially the vibrant and rich sound of her rendering of high notes. In a score remarkable for its economy of means, the solo violin part consists of one elongated and ever-flowing, fine-spun melody, commented upon and developed by the accompanying orchestral forces, which are reduced and often chamber-textured.
At the start of the piece the soloist traces a few fragile high notes, after which the orchestral violins join in imperceptibly, followed by piccolo, all inhabiting the same rarefied stratospheric register. Fresh ideas evolve freely, branching out from the basic melody. Slowly the music descends from its soaring heights and, with newfound confidence, the solo violin gives out a wide-ranging and rhythmically intricate idea, whilst brass and lower woodwind make their first appearance. Tensions between soloist and orchestra are explored, reaching a climactic point when percussion instruments enter towards the end of the first movement.
Continuing after only a short collective pause, the second movement resumes the conflict between tranquil and more fervent moods. As the music unfolds, the orchestra is liberated from the closely imitative role it fulfilled in the preceding movement (the composer has described its function as that of a Doppelgänger). The material takes on a decidedly Expressionist slant, with allusions to Alban Berg and Anton Webern. In the measured and serene closing bars, the orchestral accompaniment is gradually scaled down until it consists solely of gently bowed antique cymbals, whose ethereally ringing resonances echo the solo line as it floats aloft, weaving the ‘thread’ to its final, airy summit.
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