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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor, op.77 (1947) (rev. 1955 as op.99) [43:23]
Violin Concerto No.2 in C Sharp Minor, op.129 (1967) [33:03]
Romance from The Gadfly, op.97 (arr. Levon Atovmian) (1955) [ 5:56]
Daniel Hope (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
rec. 7-9 November 2005, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, England.
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62546-2 [77:59]

 

The First Violin Concerto is one of Shostakovich’s supreme achievements and along with the second is among the greatest works for violin and orchestra of the 20th century. However, in keeping with so much of Shostakovich’s music, as with other composers from Soviet times, the work had to wait to be performed. In this case it was more than seven years before its composer felt it was safe to publish; after Stalin’s death in fact. It had its premiere on 20 October 1955 with the great David Oistrakh, the work’s dedicatee as soloist.

The concerto is a mighty work in every way and truly symphonic in scale, comprising four movements. To quote Oistrakh: "In the violin concerto, as in many other of Shostakovich’s works, I am attracted by the amazing seriousness and profundity of the idea, the true symphonic thinking. There is nothing accidental in the score of the concerto, nothing that is used for its outward effect and is not supported by the inner logic, by the development of the material. Behind Shostakovich’s symphonic thinking you can always sense the profoundest meditation on life, on the fate of mankind". With Shostakovich there was always the public and the private face and both concertos on this disc are clearly an embodiment of the latter in which he expresses his fears as well as his hopes. Small wonder that, having been written in 1948 when Zhdanov was wielding his cultural axe with such menace, Shostakovich kept the score of the first violin concerto aside under after Stalin’s death, originally giving it the op. no. 77, it was revised in 1955 and renumbered op. 99.

I have listened to several versions and the overriding impression is that there is a unity of expression among them all, and they are a mightily talented collection: David Oistrakh, his son Igor, Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Ilya Kaler, Baiba Skride, Leila Josefowicz (separate review to come), and Daniel Hope, the subject of the current review.

It is interesting that Daniel Hope dedicated the album to David Oistrakh who is one of his violin heroes and whose work he has studied extremely closely. Coupled with this is the fact that his recording is with Maxim Shostakovich, son of the composer, which makes for a powerful input of authenticity.

Right from the start I had the feeling that here was a serious contender for benchmark status, though others have mentioned Vengerov whose version I haven’t heard. Hope shows 100% commitment and it’s clear he has lived with it for a long time before going into the studio. Both David Oistrakh and his son Igor produce wonderfully sweet tones while Daniel Hope and Dmitri Sitkovetsky - with the same orchestra and recorded in the same studio 16 years apart - have a slightly harder edge to their performances; not that that detracts in any way from a work packed with heartfelt emotion. Each movement in Hope’s rendition is beautifully crafted with the orchestra producing a wonderfully creative partnering to his hugely authoritative and authentic reading. I was particularly impressed, not to say bowled over, by Hope’s playing of the cadenza. This emerged from the third movement in the most perfectly natural way without any feeling of showy histrionics. It is expressed as an integral and logical outcome of the musical material that comes before it and into the final movement.

While I am thrilled to have the other versions mentioned, especially those of Oistrakh, and Sitkovetsky, who comes so close, I could not now do without this recording also.

Daniel Hope is equally up to the challenge of the 2nd violin concerto which was written in 1967 and intended as a 60th birthday present for David Oistrakh, to whom, once again it was dedicated. However, due to Shostakovich confusing his birth date it was ready one year early and he performed it first at the age of 59 on 26 October 1967. Preoccupied with his own mortality, having suffered a heart attack the previous year, the second concerto is more spare in its writing than the first and, in common with a great deal of his output, mirrors the sadness and despair he was feeling at the time. If ever proof were needed that out of anxiety and despair great works are often created, this is it. The movements merge from one to another in the most seamless way and Hope captures the melancholy mood perfectly. The first begins with a bleak main theme with the orchestra joined by the soloist after a mere 8 seconds but a perky and grotesque little tune attempts at various stages to break out from this barren soundscape. Though it never succeeds in completely taking over it reasserts itself as the movement comes to a close. The second movement, although more lyrical than the first is still unremittingly bleak in concept and calls for the soloist to play at times in what amounts almost to a whisper. Daniel Hope manages this in the most convincing way and with beautifully shaped passages throughout. The third movement begins with another playful theme on the violin and echoed by a mocking horn, later picked up by the whole orchestra and punctuated by outbursts from the tom-tom. A brilliant cadenza for solo violin follows leading to a restating of the main theme from the beginning of the concerto and making for a completely satisfying whole.

The filler for this disc is the romance from "The Gadfly". Hope explains that he included this because the subject of the story by E.L. Voynitch is a revolutionary who proved a thorn in the side of authority just as Shostakovich was made to feel so frequently throughout his career. Again it is a ravishingly gorgeous rendition and it makes you want to hear the whole suite.

Finally, I am not capable of being categorical about which version should be considered the benchmark but I have no hesitation in nominating this for Disc Of The Month status as I found it the most supremely listenable disc I have heard in a long time.

Steve Arloff

 



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