After the death of Stalin in 1953, there was a gradual relaxation of the
persecution of Soviet artists. A reign of terror had previously been carried
out under the supervision of his henchman Andrei Zhdanov, who had been
appointed in 1946 to direct the Soviet Union's cultural policy. By
1956 when the composer was 50, under the more relaxed regime of Nikita
Khrushchev, compositions that had been hidden away for fear of disciplinary
actions were beginning to emerge. One such was Shostakovich’s Violin
Concerto No. 1 which had actually been written in 1947-8 for the David
Oistrakh. The work had been initially withheld as its composer was
considered a formalist - one who did not conform to the ideals of the Soviet
state. Oistrakh premiered the concerto in 1955 with the Leningrad
Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky.
By 1966, under Brezhnev, the climate cooled somewhat and the oppressive
regime took its toll on the composer’s heath – he suffered a heart-attack.
After a period of recuperation he began work on his Second Violin Concerto
in May 1967. Again the dedicatee was Oistrakh, the source of inspiration for
the work, who premiered it in September of that year.
Christian Tetzlaff, the violinist in this new recording, is one of the
most high profile artists on the international concert circuit today. With a
repertoire ranging from Bach to Berg his interpretations have garnered high
praise, with the accolade of ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ from Musical
America in 2009. He also performs chamber music, having formed his own
quartet in 1994, which includes his cellist sister Tanja Tetzlaff.
In the opening Nocturne of the Concerto No. 1, Storgårds sets the tone,
conjuring up the dark brooding atmosphere which ushers in the violin’s long
monologue. Throughout the movement the conductor is sensitive to the
contours of the violin’s narrative. The harp and celesta section is
particularly vivid. The Scherzo launches into a playful dialogue between
soloist and woodwinds. The incessant banter is underpinned by verve and
gusto. There’s a real ruggedness in the violin playing which gives the
performance real energy and drive. The Passacaglia, which feels to me like
the centre of gravity of the work, ends in a wonderful, impressive cadenza –
a technical tour de force
. This leads without a break into a
rhythmically incisive and frenetic Burlesque.
With smaller forces, the Second Concerto isn’t as well-known as the first,
and doesn’t reveal its secrets as easily. Again there is an emotional
anguish underlying the first movement. Tetzlaff modifies his tone from
warmth in the lyrical sections to biting grit when the harshness and
dissonance of the score asks for it. In the Adagio he captures the
melancholic and nostalgic undercurrents. One feels the loneliness and
isolation in the atmosphere evoked. A slow introduction precedes the
dance-like finale. Storgårds points the orchestral interjections with
precision and élan. The percussion section is captured vividly in this
master-stroke of scoring.
The Helsinki Music Centre offers an ideal acoustic, allowing orchestral
definition to emerge with clarity. The sound is absolutely terrific. The
recording engineers have to be praised for achieving an ideal balance
between soloist and orchestra. Whilst Oistrakh’s 1956 recording of the Op.
99 with the New York Philharmonic under Mitropoulos and the Op. 129 with the
Moscow Philharmonic under Kondrashin from the 1960s have always been
benchmarks for me, these performances from Ondine offer worthy alternatives
in state-of-the-art sound quality. Tetzlaff’s interpretative insights into
these complex scores set the bar high. I have no hesitation in nominating
this release as a Recording of the Month
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich