Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major, Op.107 (1959) [27:37]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 (1947/48, rev. 1955) [36:37]
David Oistrakh (violin)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
rec. No details given only: recording first published in 1959 (cello) and 1960 (violin).
REGIS RRC1385 [64:14]
It was the score’s dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich who premièred Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto in October 1959 at the Leningrad Conservatory with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Shostakovich spent the summer of 1959 composing the four movement concertowhich is said to be one of the most difficult works in the cello repertory. A bold four note motif is employed; one very similar to the composer’s DSCH motif used extensively in a number of his works. On the cello this motif opens the first movement Allegretto and is prominent throughout. Shostakovich had used the term “a humorous/jocular march” to describe the movement’s character but the writing feels more sardonic than that. Rostropovich maintains a high intensity and dramatic tension throughout. I love the animated woodwind calls that punctuate proceedings. A substantial Moderato feels like a chilling and unwelcoming landscape laid to waste. With starkly beautiful playing a dark, austere and deeply reflective intensity is maintained. Marked Attacca the Cadenza could easily depict a grave scene of human hopelessness. Playful or mocking, depending on how one views it, the final Allegro con motto is a romp full of nervous energy. Over bawling woodwind and blazing brass the cello digs deep for what seems like the majority of the movement. In the Coda that bold motif defiantly recurs in the woodwind and then the horn. Rostropovich rises splendidly to the challenge with the adept Ormandy holding everything splendidly in place.
As a first choice I find it hard to look elsewhere than this outstanding account. However, there are also a couple of other valuable performances of the First Cello Concerto. In 1984 at the Hercules Hall in Munich, Heinrich Schiff was recorded in a version that shows both precision and passion. He is accompanied by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s son Maxim Shostakovich on Philips 475 7575 (c/w Cello Concerto No.2, Op. 126). I also hold in high regard the colourfully expressive account by Mischa Maisky and the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. Maisky made that recording in 1993 at the Abbey Road Studios, London and it can be heard on Deutsche Grammophon 445 821-2 (c/w Cello Concerto No.2, Op. 126).

Shostakovich had already written his Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra in C minor (1933) and was over forty before he composed the three movement Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor. This was his first string concerto and it was completed in 1948. Those immediate post-war years were a time of strict censorship for composers in Soviet Russia. Consequently it was consigned unpublished to the drawer. In October 1955 when he thought the political climate sufficiently improved Shostakovich had the score premièred by the renowned soloist and its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky. Well received at its première ithas become acknowledged as one of the finest of the twentieth century. The opus number of 77 was altered to 99 at the publication of the full score in 1955, however, the original opus number has now been restored. Shostakovich again uses his DSCH motif prominently. With the violin playing almost continually the four movement score opens with a Nocturne (Moderato). This is a most disconcerting and mysterious opening with Oistrakh asserting a spine-tingling atmosphere straight away. It’s powerfully desolate, bleak and extremely tense; nerve-shattering stuff. In the resolute and demonic Scherzo (Allegro) Mravinsky builds weighty orchestral climaxes of real emotional impact. Oistrakh’s brisk and committed playing feels perfectly in accord with the orchestra. Making an appearance in the Scherzo is that motif. Probably the most notable movement is the profound Passacaglia. This develops from an ostinato figure emanating from the cellos. In music that has been said to serve as a requiem for victims of the Stalinist regime Mravinsky with sinister grandeur conjures a granitic power. As if his instrument was crying deeply Oistrakh plays an extended, exposed, potently mournful, song. The Leningrad orchestra responds with an appealing if somewhat incongruous melody. Mravinsky tightens the screw and the sheer declamatory power of the orchestra becomes almost unbearable. Oistrakh plays a demanding cadenza that is progressively disconsolate, introverted and unremittingly rhapsodic. The solo line becomes less melodic, increasingly disgruntled and more frenzied. Following straight on the Finale, a Burlesque (Allegro con brio) is forceful and boisterous. I love the recurring memorable but spiky motto theme. The concerto ends abruptly on a wild and breathless note. 
In the case of the First Violin Concerto,for playing which is beautiful, dramatically intense and extraordinarily exciting I have to give the highest possible praise to the 2006 Munich account by Arabella Steinbacher. She can be heard with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on Orfeo C 687 061 A (c/w Violin Concerto No.2, Op.129).
Regis is the master of reissues at super budget prices. They would inspire more confidence if they were to provide more detailed information about the origins of the performances. Although occasionally a touch muddy I found the sound of both recordings more than acceptable for their age.
These excellent Shostakovich performances from Rostropovich and Oistrakh are a snip at the price.
Michael Cookson
A snip at the price.