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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107 (1959) [26:04]
Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 126 (1966) [31:52]
Dmitry Kouzov (cello)
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
rec. Melodiya Studio, St. Petersburg, Russia, 4-5 June 2011 (No. 1); 2-3 January 2011 (No. 2)
DELOS DE 3444 [57:56]

Cellist Dmitry Kouzov, Associate Professor of Cello at the University of Illinois and winner of the New York Cello Society Rising Star Award in 2006, is new to me. His discography is fairly small, but he’s travelled widely and played with a number of ensembles, albeit second-rank ones. The band featured here, once known as the Orchestra of Ancient and Modern Music, is clearly one of them. Maestro Lande is equally unfamiliar, but then new recordings of these concertos are welcome, whatever their provenance.
As always in this record-collecting game there are benchmark performances against which all newcomers are likely to be measured. My comparative versions of the first concerto are those of the work’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma; both are on Sony, along with Eugene Ormandy and his fabled Philadelphians. For the second I’ve chosen Truls Mørk, with Mariss Jansons and the London Philharmonic (Virgin). Admittedly the Rostropovich - recorded in November 1959 - is showing its age, but goodness what a penetrating performance it is; Ma’s recording, once paired with Bernstein’s Tokyo remake of Shostakovich’s Fifth, is in early digital sound.
Listeners more familiar with the trenchancy of Shostakovich’s symphonies may be surprised by the lightly scored interior world of the first concerto, whose perkily insistent Allegretto is one of those movements that lingers in the mind long after it's been and gone. Despite its relative reticence the colours and rhythms of the piece are utterly distinctive, and that comes through strongly in Rostropovich’s reading. There’s an easeful certainty here as well, and that’s what makes this such a compelling performance. Predictably, perhaps, Kouzov sounds rather lightweight and much less articulate, but then Ma isn’t that powerful either. As for the Russian orchestra the backward balance and shallow recording robs them of character and presence.
Ormandy is a model of discretion - in both recordings - but at least there’s a tic and tension to the outer movements that you won’t find with Kouzov/Lande. Trouble is, in such distinguished company most cellists are apt to seem pallid, and Kouzov is no exception. He certainly doesn’t plumb the same depths of melancholy in the Cadenza, but then neither does Ma. Also, Kouzov’s tone sounds almost wispy after the firmer, full-toned Rostropovich. No, try as I might I could not warm to the Kouzov/Lande partnership; perhaps it’s all too generalised, too safe, where one yearns for clarity and at least a hint of the composer's subversive spirit.
Mørk and Jansons make a strong team in both concertos, although their account of the volatile second is probably the pick of the modern bunch. Also, Virgin’s nicely nuanced recording has a tonal sophistication that’s bang up to date. This is the Shostakovich sound world we’re more used to, and the LPO delight in the work’s razored wit. That said, Kouzov is darkly intense in the Largo; the orchestra appears to be more closely recorded this time, and that adds a welcome tang to the performance.
Indeed, I’m more impressed with Kouzov in the second concerto, even if Lande doesn’t wring as much colour and detail from his players as Jansons does. In the middle movement at least Kouzov and Lande do find something of the alacrity and bite one expects from the piece. However, the scrappy playing confirms this isn’t a first-rate ensemble, and the eruptive Finale points up the somewhat fierce recording. Still, this isn’t a bad performance, it’s just not a terribly interesting one.
There’s so much more to be wrested from these notes than either Kouzov or Lande would have us believe, and that’s why the forensic, incident-packed Mørk/Jansons coupling is still the one to have.
Kouzov doesn’t measure up to these scores; the orchestra is mediocre too.
Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich cello concertos