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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major Op.107 (1959) [28:06]
Cello Concerto No.2 in G major Op.126 (1966) [35:21]
Rafał Kwiatkowski (cello)
Polish Radio Orchestra/Wojciech Rajska
rec. Witold Lutosławski Studio of Polish Radio in Warsaw, 1999-2000
DUX 0549 [63:27]


Sound Sample
Opening of Cello Concerto No 1: iv Allegro con moto
Sound samples are removed after two months

Like me, you may not have heard of Rafał Kwiatkowski, but he has already made an international name for himself, winning a number of big international competitions, touring widely and working closely with Penderecki on new works such as a cello version of his Viola Concerto. He is also a thinking musician, as his excellent booklet notes for this CD amply prove. Kwiatkowski’s musical horizons are wide, embracing chamber music and a diversity of genres. Concerning Shostakovich he is on record as saying “elegance is not always the goal. Shostakovich, which has so much energy, doesn’t have to be beautiful; it must be violent.” In terms of recording as opposed to live performance there is no difference: “I like to record,” he says. “What I like is that we can play the piece as many times as we want to get what we want. Sometimes when you listen to a live performance and a recording, the piece has a different life. But I put in the same emotion when I record and when I play. I never feel impassive or indifferent at a recording session.”


Judging by the results on this disc, he can easily make his point. These recordings have a ‘live’ quality, while at the same time being spotless studio tapings. The Polish Radio Orchestra is a crack team, and give their all for their artistic director Wojciech Rajska. The orchestra has a glossy string sound, nicely tuned winds and brass, and a sensitivity to colour which adapts to the mood of the music – acidic and punchy to rounded and mellow, while never quite losing that edgy sense of danger in Shostakovich’s writing.


The Witold Lutosławski Studio must be a large space, as the acoustic is pleasantly resonant. The balance, often difficult in these concertos, favours the soloist as one might expect, but the musicians are realistically matched, and the solo cello mixes in with the orchestra at tutti passages in much the same way as it would in the concert hall.


Having very recently encountered the Cello Concerto No.1 as played by Han-Na Chang  I was a bit concerned that my ears might find it hard to accept yet another new version, but in this case I warmed immediately to Kwiatkowski’s style and musicality. No, he is not as ‘in your face’ and spectacular, but that is not always what you want. Neither is he safe and pedestrian – he doesn’t sound as if he’s taking risks, but that’s what happens if you are good enough. I have to admit, I have heard the second Moderato movement more emotional and involving, but this is certainly a version I could take onto my desert island without feeling I was missing too much – with this kind of music, it’s your own mood which often dictates your response, and either way it’s not so much Kwiatkowski who is reserved, more the orchestra. The cadenza is poetic and nicely shaped, Kwiatkowski showing that it’s not all violence – his lyrical playing in this and the second concerto is second to none.


While the first concerto is excellent, the Cello Concerto No.2 is more the star on this disc. I found my tear ducts being tugged right from the start, with that grim darkness shot through with genuine passion and human emotion. Kwiatkowski’s deep, rich tone lives and breathes through the entire range of his instrument, and the orchestra seems to respond to his eloquence. This concerto is often seen as the more ‘difficult’ of the two, but with this combination all of the intellectual challenges seem to fall away, leaving deeply moving music played with convincing warmth and commitment. There is a pay-off for this of course. All of Shostakovich’s little colours and digs are present, but in what is essentially a romantic reading the sharper edges of the composer’s dry, almost deprecating wit do become chamfered a little. Take the second Allegretto movement: surely we’ve heard those string pizzicati with more grit and drive? Indeed, but the movement builds with organic power, and with titanic blasts from the double-bassoon the true business of the movement shows genuine impact.


Arriving at the final Allegretto, the horn-calls near the opening are a little recessed, and might have been a little wilder. Once the meat of the movement kicks in however, so again do those goose-pimples. Kwiatkowski revels in these most expressive of melodic lines, singing them with personality and a sense of freedom without distorting their shape with irritating mannerisms or attempts to ‘improve’ on the intentions of the composer.


To conclude, this recording is one for the long term – one with which to live. It may not have the punishing grit of some: the hair-raising climaxes are proportionate, but might not take you out of your comfort zone in the same way as others. There is nothing essentially missing however, and the synergy between soloist and orchestra is impeccable. Rafał Kwiatkowski is something a bit special, and lifts these recordings from being just very good to being ones with which you will be reluctant to part.


Dominy Clements   




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