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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, op.107 (1959) [30:54]
Cello Concerto No.2, op.126 (1966) [36:58]
Dimitri Maslennikov (cello)
NDR Sinfonieorchester/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. 29 June – 1 July 2006, Rolf-Liebermann Studio, NDR Hamburg DDD
PHOENIX EDITION 128 [67:52] 
Experience Classicsonline

Dimitri Maslennikov (b. 1980) is a very fine young cellist. This new recording of the two Shostakovich concertos shows him to great advantage. He has all the virtuosity these works demand; they were both written for Rostropovich, remember. He also has the insight of a much older musician in his view of the works.

The two works couldn’t be more different. The first is bright and extrovert. It possesses a haunting slow movement, a brilliant cadenza given a movement all to itself, and two very vital outer movements. Almost as soon as it was heard it was recorded by its dedicatee and this performance is still available: Sony BMG MHK 63327, conducted by Eugene Ormandy – coupled with the première recording of the 1st Violin Concerto with Oistrakh and Mitropoulos. Both performances are essential listening and set a benchmark for these works.

The 2nd Cello Concerto is much more subdued. It’s imbued with resignation and sadness. Apart from a short, Russian dance of a scherzo, the two outer movements are, in general, withdrawn and elusive. A reasonably sized orchestra is used in chamber music combinations and there is little respite from the continual darkness. Unlike its partner, it was some time before it was recorded, again by the dedicatee, this time with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra: Deutsche Grammophon 431 475 – there are also three other Rostropovich recordings of the work currently available.

The most recent performances I heard of these works were by Tortelier and Mørk in the EMI 3 CD set of Shostakovich’s complete concertos (EMI CLASSICS 5 09428 2). I have to report that Maslennikov is superior to the former and more insightful than the latter.

The 1st Concerto has some fiendish passage-work in the fast movements, not to mention hair-raising multiple stoppings whilst accompanying the solo horn. Tortelier never sounded at home here but Maslennikov is totally in control. No matter what challenge the composer throws at him he can easily overcome the difficulties. The performance of the slow movement is restrained; the winsome first theme is quite engaging in its simple way. At the end, where the theme is played in harmonics, and in duet with the celesta (rather backwardly balanced), the effect is quite magical. Maslennikov handles the cadenza, third, movement with ease – again throwing off the difficulties with aplomb. In the finale the orchestra really comes into its own. I should add that this is the clearest recording of the orchestral accompaniment I’ve ever heard. All caution is thrown to the wind and this helter-skelter, manic and wildly exuberant approach really suits this music. This performance is a triumph.

A quiet recitative for the soloist opens the 2nd Concerto to which Shostakovich adds the darkest of woodwind sounds. It’s all quite oppressive. From this bleak start is built a long, slow, movement, which is unrelenting in its austerity. Maslennikov plays with such intensity that he makes you want to keep listening – discovering each new turn of the music with him. He creates a forward momentum as we pass through the barren landscape. The middle section, with its flecks of woodwind sound, accompanied by xylophone, is quite disturbing in its ghostly fashion. The climax is well built, the orchestra taking charge with the soloist making pathetic comments, only to give way to a very strange cadenza accompanied by bass drum. Then we’re back to the music of the opening, revised and revisited. It’s all profoundly troubling, thanks, in no small part, to an excellent performance, full of insight.

The scherzo is given in a straightforward way, which heightens the tensions and makes the listener very uneasy. The finale is another odd concoction. There’s a twisted fanfare - the kind of thing I always expect at the moment when Shakespeare writes a tucket is heard - a gentle lullaby in 6/8 which always resolves into a commonplace cadence and a wild repetition of the scherzo’s tune for full orchestra. The end is quite unusual in that Shostakovich recalls the percussion music from the end of the middle movement of the 4th Symphony. Despite all these disparate elements Shostakovich makes a very convincing whole.

All in all, this is a superb disk. Maslennikov displays a strong technique and a fine sound. He is especially enjoyable above the stave. However, on occasion, due to the excitement created the value of rests is cut short as he plunges onwards. In the last movement of the 2nd Concerto the important percussion parts (from the 4th Symphony) are far too distant. Indeed, some of them were inaudible at the volume I was playing the disk and this allowed the full orchestra to really let rip when necessary – small reservations.

Excellent playing from Maslennikov. Outstanding playing from the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra. Magnificent direction from Christoph Eschenbach.

Bob Briggs


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