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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto for cello and orchestra Op.107 (1959) [29:18]
Moisei VAINBERG (1919-1969)

Concerto for cello and orchestra Op.43 (1959) [30:52]
Yuri LEVITIN (1912-1993)

Concertino for cello and orchestra (1961) [19:55]
Mark Dobrinsky (cello)
Kazan Symphony Orchestra/Fuat Mansurov (Shostakovich)
Russian State Cinematographic Orchestra/Walter Mnatzakanov (Vainberg; Levitin)
rec. 2002, no other details provided
TALENT DOM 2910 85 [78:40]


 

To put lesser works alongside the Everest of cello concertos (Shostakovich Op.107) is a risk but Vainberg’s sprawling four movement concerto needs no towering penumbra to conceal a rather weak piece. It is imitative (forgivable) but how anyone could have been interested enough to publish and play such shallow music is beyond my understanding. The moderately useful insert notes - unascribed and with some eccentric spelling - state that Vainberg re-worked a 1948 concerto after the appearance of the Shostakovich in 1959 and used the same format. Recycling is a popular modern concept but when one considers that he wrote 8 operas, 17 quartets and 27 symphonies it all smacks of trade rather than art. There are some ‘nice sounds’ as one would expect from a well-trained musician and some strategic Jewish themes which seem more ironed-on than part of the fabric so I stick to my view that this concerto is perhaps just too second-rate to stand alongside Shostakovich and Levitine.

Yuri Levitin’s Concertino is a complete contrast and is effectively a cello concerto of outstanding merit. I guess that he called it ‘concertino’ because the cello is integrated into a small marvel of entrancing music, albeit as long as many standard concertos. The Ukrainian Jewish composer was a pupil of Shostakovich in the 1930s and a partner in poker games, doubtless with vodka and American cigarettes which his teacher loved. That said there is little imitation apart from the unavoidable.

Levitin’s gift is in orchestral texture and opening Allegretto has luscious woodwind in layers and some chattering. It’s all in wonderful balance with the cello writing so sensitively executed by Mark Dobrinsky with the perfection we have come to expect from him. The Andante has a suggestion of the Shostakovich violin concerto No.1 after a bold brass and woodwind start. There are some atonal hints and an astonishing economy of expression as Levitin balances the woodwind against the cello sonorities without falling back on orchestral strings. This prefigures many of the later developments we associate with Baltic composers. The Moderato has some earlier Shostakovich sarcasm in the coda (9th symphony) but it is Levitin all the way until then. There are some amazing woodwind with cello passages and, for 1961, some new and very subtle serious writing for brass. Borrowing a cheeky bit of scherzo from his teacher he ends a remarkable work in what is merely a compliment to the Master.

The Shostakovich cello concerto No.1 stands alongside his violin concerto No.1, also in four movements, but the 1948 violin concerto was written in the Stalin era of post-war terror in the Soviet Union. It intrigues me that the cello concerto goes even farther in wrist-slashing torture after the jolly Allegretto based on the famous DSCH sequence and its mirror image which sounds Jewish. Perhaps careful listening and history tell us why.

At this point it is necessary to refer to Shostakovich’s deep friendship with Ivan Solertinsky when he was a young man. The famous Piano Trio was written in memory of his friend, who just happened to be a Jew. Shostakovich was a middle class native of Leningrad, not homosexual - married twice with children - but friendship and loyalty were essential to him. He was precocious, never in good health, had poor eyesight and was as vulnerable as any to city life in a generally oppressive and miserable USSR.

I believe that his interest in Jewish culture was in pursuit of a tradition which the USSR had suppressed in such as Slavonic folklore and Russian Orthodox religion. By the time of the Nazi siege of Leningrad Shostakovich had taken his stand as a patriotic Russian but sent his wife and children to safety. He was then free to be a fireman in the city and lived with various friends who were mainly Jews still in the city not least because Stalin was anti-Semitic; Jews were seldom given passes out of the cities. After the shocking revelation of the Nazi extermination camps it must have disgusted Shostakovich that Stalin was at least equal to Hitler in pogroms against the Jews, intellectuals, disabled people and a long list of enemies of the state. When Stalin died in 1953 - on the same day as Prokofiev - the gloom of continuity in the Cold War period helped to explain the music Shostakovich wrote in the 1950s.

The cello concerto No.1 is very economical with so much to say but it’s not miserable or self-pitying so much as accurate to the time. It has the sparky ‘up yours’ defiance Shostakovich often used. Profound is the word and I place this cello concerto in the Top Three concertos to date.

Mark Dobrinsky, this time with the Kazan Symphony Orchestra under Fuat Mansurov, takes the work in a measured way and succeeds. There are many famous performances but fame and star quality too often confound the personal and lonely quality of Op.107. Better dynamics could have been achieved. Other contenders are the award-winning Naxos with Kliegel, Polish NRSO under Antony Wit and a mysterious Regis issue, now withdrawn, with a brilliant rendering of the 15th symphony under Konstantin Ivanov.

The cello concerto No.1 was alleged to be by Daniil Shafran but it seems that the ascribed personnel were incorrect in a serious way. Sinaisky conducted the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on an earlier Chandos recording. A very nice detective story for MWI readers but, for my money, that version is a nose ahead of all others and the 15th symphony is up there with Slovak and Ormandy (analogue).

The Russian State Cinematographic Orchestra under Walter Mnatzakanov isn’t exactly thrilling in terms of names but just listen to the playing and famous names will mean nothing. This applies even in the egregious Vainberg which is given the courtesy of excellent playing.


This interesting release by Classical Talent/DOMUSIC of Antwerp squeezes three cello concertos into a well packed 78 minute CD. The result is some over-compression in the final work by Yuri Levitin. Tracking the sample CD meant using slightly down-market gear and the producers should, in my view, have put the Moisei Vainberg concerto last because losing bits of it would be a blessing. The limited dynamics of this disc only occur in the Levitine work because compression is not to DOM standards and MWI has subsequently been informed that the master was not an in-house recording such as DOM customarily uses to excellent effect.

Summing up, this Talent release shows integrity of intention and is musically fine except for one work. I hope that we get more from the Antwerp company as long as a bit of work is done on insert translations in the process.

This is certainly a CD to be praised if not highly recommended.

Stephen Hall

 

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