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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
"There is virtuosity aplenty in the uninhibited outpouring of the Scherzo and Burlesque...this proves another jewel in Naxos's already richly encrusted crown"
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75)
Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Censured by Stalin, feted by Khruschev, celebrated by the world, a child of Tsarist Petersburg schooled by the first Leninists, public rhetorician, private soliloquiser: how will history choose to remember Shostakovich? As a chronicler of events epic and tragic, dimensions grotesque and satirical, perspectives elegiac and sentimental. As an essayer, a vivid essayer, of moods and confessions, of emotional discord and harmony. As a man, a genius, of destiny. Boris Tischenko, one of his students: "Our generation grew up on his music, and with his name on our lips. So our hearts would miss a beat when he took off his spectacles to clean them and we caught a glimpse of him, like a knight without armour, close to us, defenceless. The influence of his personality was so great that one began oneself to change, to become ashamed of one's insignificance, one's ineptitude, one's lack of understanding. That such a man lived has made the world a much finer place. We must all learn from him, and not from his music alone". As a human being of profound spiritual bitterness and disillusionment. Testament, the alleged memoirs (New York 1979): "Looking back I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses ...There were no particularly happy moments in my life, no great joys. It was grey and dull and it makes me sad to think about it. It saddens me to admit it, but it's the truth, the unhappy truth". As Soviet Russia's most famous musical son. With Tolstoy he agreed that music was a "stenography of feelings", "capable of expressing overwhelming, sombre drama and euphoria, sorrow and ecstasy, burning wrath and chilling fury, melancholy and rousing merriment -and not only all these emotions but also their subtlest nuances and the transitions in between -which words, painting or sculpture cannot express... [Music] creates a spiritual image of man, teaches him to feel, and expands and liberates his soul... Real music is always revolutionary, it unites people, agitates them and urges them forward... Real music can express only great humane emotions, only progressive, human ideas" (1964).
Defying the cultural anaemia of post-war Soviet Russia, the First Violin Concerto in A minor, (1947-48), dedicated to David Oistrakh, took shape at a time of severe censorship and purge. In the harsh climate of its anti-Semitic, "Zhdanovshchina" circumstance, the late Boris Schwarz reminds us (1980), the only way Shostakovich could survive creatively was by resorting to "two musical idioms: one more simplified and accessible to comply with [Kremlin] guidelines ...the other more complex and abstract to satisfy his own artistic standards". Necessarily, music of the second category - the Concerto, the Fourth Quartet, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry - he kept to himself, not releasing it for public scrutiny until the political thaw succeeding Stalin's death in March 1953.
Following some dozen rehearsals in the presence of the composer, Oistrakh with Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic gave the first performance of the Concerto on 29th October 1955 - to "a rapturous ovation". Not falling "easily into one's hands", it was, he declared, an "innovational" work, remarkable for "the surprising seriousness and depth of its artistic content, its absolute symphonic thinking", that posed "exceedingly interesting problems for the performer, who plays, as it were, a pithy 'Shakespearian' role, which demands complete emotional and intellectual involvement, and gives ample opportunities not only to demonstrate virtuosity but also to reveal deepest feelings, thoughts and moods".
Shostakovich first played through the music at the piano for Oistrakh and his son, Igor, in 1948 - "with a virtuosity which itself would have been admirable ...if he had not been so deeply moved by the music ...The tragedy of the images conquered one as much as the lyrics of the whole structure" (Igor, 1977). Western commentators seem undecided as to the extent of alteration (if any) the work may have undergone in the seven year interim between creation and performance. We have Igor's word, however, that his father knew for certain of "the composer ." working on a second version". We know that David Oistrakh himself not only edited the violin part but also gave "real help in the work's composition", presumably after 1948 (Literaturnaya Gazeta, 8th June 1957), and we have a letter from Shostakovich to Oistrakh both confirming changes made following the first performance, and regretting his inability "to produce a new orchestration of the beginning of the finale".
In the Liszt-Brahms-Busoni tradition, the work is in four movements - Nocturne, Scherzo, Passacaglia and Burlesca, with a Cadenza (as organically germane as anything in Beethoven) bridging the last two. Schwarz (Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1972) speaks of the "contemplative and ethereal" character of the first; the "rough-hewn middle section suggesting a Jewish folk- dance" of the "sparkling" second; the "lapidary grandeur" of the third; and the "devil-may-care abandonment" of the last. Over a decade earlier, Oistrakh had found other adjectives. Atmospherically, the Nocturne (originally adagio) was "not all melancholy hopelessness, but ...a suppression of feelings, of tragedy in the best sense of purification". The Scherzo (the soloist "concertising" with the woodwind) was "evil, demoniac, prickly". The Burlesca, on the other hand, he considered to have been wrongly labelled, the imagery of its title communicating little of "the festive character or Russian colour of the music, suggestive of a joyous folk party, even the bagpipes of travelling musicians. I would look for another name to convey the wildness and shining jubilation of its deeply Russian experience". In consequence of his legendary autumn 1972 London recording with Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, he wrote of the Cadenza as stemming "from a gradual dynamic intensification demanding an irreversible forward movement and a gigantic inexhaustible vigour".
Stylistically and thematically, the music's strata of peasant gaiety and profound gravity challengingly span the earlier (cheerful) Ninth Symphony and later (serious) Tenth. Indeed certain elements -passages from the Scherzo, for instance, the autobiographical DSCH motto (the notes D, E flat, C, B in German nomenclature) - were to resurface again in the latter. Elsewhere Shostakovich's inspiration seems to recall his greater wartime utterances - the Yiddish step of the Second Piano Trios finale, the passacaglia of the Eighth Symphony. The First Violin Concerto is scored for piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four horns, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, xylophone, celesta, two harps and strings.
"The shyest and most nervous human being I have ever seen," remembered Robert Craft (1962). "He chews not merely his nails but his fingers, twitches his pouty mouth and chin, chain-smokes, wiggles his nose in constant adjustment of his spectacles, looks querulous one moment and ready to cry the next. His hands tremble, he stutters, his whole frame wobbles when he shakes hands - which reminds us of Auden - and his knees knock when he speaks ...He has a habit of staring, too, then of turning guiltily away when caught ...There is no betrayal of the thoughts behind those frightened, very intelligent eyes." A Soviet documentary film (1971) portrays him "seated in the compartment of a speeding train, looking into the window mournfully streaked with rain ...[a] pale face with its tightly compressed lips. The fingers of his nervous hands are never at rest. And in the eyes from beneath the heavily rimmed glasses can be caught flashes of anger, pain and courage. Such is the face of the musician who is called the 'musical conscience of the century'... his passion for confession in music ...may overtake him in any surroundings". In his twilight years he was a man who "just wanted to have the presence of a person he liked, sitting without a word in the same room" (Rostropovich). Flanked by the humanistic Baba Yar Symphony and death-intoned Fourteenth, as well as the Eleventh and "life and death" Twelfth Quartets, the immediate period of the Second Violin Concerto (1967) was as much one of psychic and personal unions (Mahler, Gogol, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, Slok, Yevtushenko, Akhmatova, Britten) as progressive ill-health and mental anguish (a severe heart-attack late in May 1966). It was also a time of adulation and acclaim. His sixtieth year, 1966, witnessed not only countless celebrations of his music and the film version of his once politically incorrect opera Katerina Ismailova (with Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich's wife, in the title role) but also public and artistic honour East and West - including Soviet Hero of Socialist Labour and the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. "I cannot name a favourite composer or a favourite writer. I derive real pleasure from very many things and very many writers, composers, artists and sculptors... I have no favourite genres ...I love them all, from Bach's masses to the operettas of Johann Strauss" (Muzykalnaya Zhizn).
The last of Shostakovich's six concertos, completed in a spring fortnight at the Composers' Retreat at (Karelian) Repino near Leningrad, the Second Violin Concerto was intended for David Oistrakh, a sixtieth birthday present a year in advance. "Dear Dodik," its author wrote from Moscow on 20th May 1967, "I've finished a new violin concerto. I was thinking of you when I wrote it. I want to show you the concerto, though it's terribly difficult for me to play these days. I'll be very happy if the concerto pleases you, and if you'll play it my happiness will be beyond description. If you have no objection, I'd like to dedicate the concerto to you". Incorporating his own revisions, Oistrakh initially tried out the work in public on 13th September 1967 in the small town of Bolshevo, outside Moscow (Palace of Culture). A tape was sent to the composer, who thought the interpretation "glorious" (transcripts of his telephone conversations with Oistrakh are reproduced in Viktor Jusefovich's David Oistrakh, Moscow 1977 / London 1979). The official première followed two weeks later on 26th September, with the Moscow Philharmonic under Kondrashin in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The Western premiere, relayed by radio to Shostakovich's hospital-bed, took place in London on 19th November, with Ormandy conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.
Reviewing the work (Musical Times, January 1968), Andrew Porter chose his adjectives tellingly. "Long-breathed ...lyrical reflection ...elegant ...moving ... memorable ...magical... poetic ..." "The new concerto is a beautifully wrought and thoroughly characteristic piece; if it makes a less immediately profound impression than its predecessor, the reason may be that the procedures of later Shostakovich are now very familiar, also that the themes themselves are perhaps of less interesting and eloquent outline than others of their kind. But their working is beautiful". In an analytical review (Music & Musicians, January 1968), the present writer drew attention to the work's distinctive organic integration and melodic inter- relationships, stressing its neoclassical give-and-take, its chamber-like block orchestration for families of instrumental colour, and its "reliance on chromatic inflexions, sequential writing, transposition, modal modification of figures, uncomplex development and growth ...and pivot relationships between different tonal centres ..." Why the unlikely choice of C sharp minor (an "extremely awkward", "stopped" violin key, remarked upon by Oistrakh) has never really been addressed. Maybe Shostakovich had Beethoven's Op. 131 Quartet in mind. Or perhaps Mahler's Fifth Symphony - which he had heard in Vienna two years previously.
The work is in three movements. The first is a sonata-design, sub-dominantly biased with a broad contrapuntal cadenza, based on the opening idea, preceding a curtailed reprise. Memories of old works (the Fifth Symphony), old friends (Prokofiev), old models (the lyrical emphasis of the Beethoven and Brahms prototypes), broken self-portraiture shadow the pages. The tripartite central G minor Adagio is interesting for the rhetoric and declamatory "accompanied cadenza" of its middle section, with the soloist going back to worlds earlier visited by Chopin, Joachim, Brahms and Elgar. The transition, cadences and expressive Mahlerian horn solo of the coda take us to a "frolicsome finale" (a dance-like, folk-loristic rondo). In passing acknowledging the late Mozart G minor Symphony, this consists of several refrains and three episodes (the first lyrical, the second scherzando, the third for soloist, oboe and clarinet), framed by a slow introduction for unaccompanied violin and an uninhibited coda, drawing on the main theme. Preceding the third episode, there is an imposing 150-bar solo cadenza, recalling and developing a number of previous motifs and ideas. As with the First Concerto and the First Cello Concerto (1959), this cadenza has more to do with creative architecture than executant platform: "the composer uses cadenzas to carry great emotional and structural weight -not as display episodes, but as intensification, as urgent intimate discussion of the material" (Porter).
The Second Violin Concerto is scored for piccolo, flute, pairs each of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, double bassoon, a quartet of horns, timpani, tom-tom and strings.
The Russian violinist Ilya Kaler was born in 1963 in Moscow and studied there at the Conservatory under Leonid Kogan and Victor Tretyakov. In 1981 he won the Grand Prize at the Genoa Paganini Competition and in 1985 the Gold Medal at the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki, with a Special Prize for his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The following year he won the Gold Medal at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition. He has appeared as a soloist with the most distinguished Russian orchestras and abroad with orchestras of Eastern and Western Europe and in the United States and the Far East, while as a recitalist he has performed in the major cities of Europe, in the Far East and throughout the former Soviet Union. On this recording Ilya Kaler plays a 1748 Camilus Camilli violin, courtesy of Dmitry Gindin Violins, Florence, Italy.
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO)
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice was founded in 1935 in Warsaw through the initiative of well-known Polish conductor and composer Grzegorz Fitelberg. Under his direction the ensemble worked until the outbreak of World War II. Soon after the war, in March 1945, the orchestra was resurrected in Katowice by the eminent Polish conductor Witold Rowicki. In 1947 Grzegorz Fitelberg returned to Poland and became artistic director of the PNRSO. He was followed by a series of distinguished Polish conductors -Jan Krenz, Bohdan Wodiezko, Kazimierz Kord, Tadeusz Strugala, Jerzy Maksymiuk, Stanislaw Wislocki and, since 1983, Antoni Wit. The orchestra has appeared with conductors and soloists of the greatest distinction and has recorded for Polskie Nagrania and many international record labels. For Naxos the PNRSO have recorded the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
Antoni Wit Antoni Wit was born in Cracow in 1 944 and studied there, before becoming assistant to Witold Rowicki with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw in 1967. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Penderecki and in 1971 was a prize-winner in the Herbert von Karajan Competition. Study at Tanglewood with Skrowaczewski and Seiji Ozawa was followed by appointment as Principal Conductor first of the Pomeranian Philharmonic and then of the Cracow Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 1983 he took up the position of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Antoni Wit has undertaken many engagements abroad with major orchestras, ranging from the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Welsh and Scottish Symphony Orchestras to the Kusatsu Festival Orchestra in Japan.
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SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2