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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 (1959) [27.57]
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Mała Suite (or Little Suite) (1950, rev. 51) [10.04]
Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Cello Concerto, Op 92 (1948, rev. 1956) [33.04]
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Michał Nesterowicz
rec. September 2015 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

Channel Classics present three twentieth century works from Slavic composers with soloist Nicolas Altstaedt playing a cello concerto each by Shostakovich and Weinberg. I’m guessing it was probably difficult to find a suitable third work of the right length for cello and orchestra for Altstaedt to play. Instead, serving as a filler is a short orchestral score by Lutosławski.

The opening work on the album is the first of two cello concertos Shostakovich wrote for compatriot Mstislav Rostropovich. Severe artistic constraints demanded by the authorities in Soviet Russia helped shape their enigmatic character. Both contain outstanding episodes of technical virtuosity and profound emotional expression for the soloist together with challenging orchestral writing. Written in 1959 the First Cello Concerto bears a dedication to Rostropovich who introduced the work in that year with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky. In the opening Allegretto the playing is dark and deeply intense with the mood becoming increasingly troubled and intense. With an icy chill imbuing the writing, the soloist brings deep introspection to the Moderato developing a state of almost unbearable sorrow. Relishing the challenges Altstaedt excels in the anxiety-laden Cadenza. One wonders if the composer was depicting a state of mental instability. Altstaedt provides an abundance of restless, nervous energy in the Finale: Allegretto with determined writing punctuated by anguished cries. A clear first choice recording in both Shostakovich’s Cello Concertos is Heinrich Schiff with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer’s son Maxim. Impressively recorded in 1984 at Munich, Schiff’s version combines formidably powerful expression and deep intensity in these absorbing accounts - compelling in every way on Philips. I also admire the totally committed playing of the premičre recording of the work by Mstislav Rostropovich with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1959 at the Broadwood Hotel, Philadephia. Wonderfully remastered too on Sony Classical I place this Rostropovich account of the First Cello Concerto almost on a par with Schiff.

The Mała Suite (or Little Suite) for chamber orchestra was a commission from Warsaw Radio written in 1950 in the midst of the Soviet oppression in Poland. Lutosławski revised and enlarged the orchestration for symphony orchestra in 1951. In this four movement score Lutosławski employs folk melodies used as themes collected from the village of Machów near Rzeszów in south-eastern Poland. Accessible and highly attractive the work is more far more substantial than its title might at first suggest. The first movement, titled Fujarka (Fife), is an appealingly melodic Allegretto bustling with activity. Prominent rather playful piccolo combined with drums gives a curious martial spirit together with rhythmic often rapacious bursts of energetic forward momentum. Briskly taken the Hurra Polka (Hoorah Polka) marked Vivace has a hectic and forceful quality that contrasts with the Piosenka (Song), a calming sunny atmospheric Andante molto sostenuto that builds in weight containing a profusion of prominent woodwind contributions. The final movement Taniec (Dance) an Allegro molto has an uplifting vibrancy that reminds me somewhat of the Allegretto from Janáček’s Sinfonietta, together with a brooding central section. There is a recommendable account of Mała Suite from the BBC Symphony Orchestra providing exemplary playing under Edward Gardner recorded in 2011 at Watford Colosseum on Chandos.

A developing fascination for Weinberg’s life and music has led to a growing number of recordings of this Polish-born Soviet composer. Decisive was the Bregenz Festival in 2011 containing a ‘Weinberg Retrospective’ including the stage premičre of Weinberg’s Holocaust opera The Passenger directed by David Pountney. As the featured composer at Bregenz a number of other Weinberg scores were performed including his Gogol opera The Portrait. Weinberg’s Cello Concerto was written in 1948 at a most troubled period when his father in law Solomon Mikhoels had been murdered, seemingly on the orders of Stalin, and all composers were severely affected by the impact of the anti-formalist campaign in the Soviet Union. Waiting for an improved political climate the score was consigned to the drawer for some seven years before it was finally premičred at Moscow in 1957 with Rostropovich as soloist. There’s deep concentration from Altstaedt especially in the darkly brooding opening movement Adagio that feels almost like a lament. A sense of searching and uncertainty imbues the Moderato – Lento movement with passages of a klezmer feel. Boldness and determination from Altstaedt is accompanied by wonderful orchestral playing. The Finale - Allegro features uplifting playing with a surging intensity that decays away to nothing at the conclusion. For Weinberg’s Cello Concerto the list of competitors in the catalogue is small. Not surprisingly Mstislav Rostropovich is a persuasive soloist playing with passion and full tone with the USSR State Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky from 1964 at Moscow on Melodiya. There is also a heartfelt reading from soloist Claes Gunnarsson with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Thord Svedlund finely recorded in 2011 at Gothenburg for Chandos (review). An equally fine score Weinberg’s Fantasia for cello and orchestra, Op, 52 is certainly worth investigating.

Nicolas Altstaedt’s Giulio Cesare Gigli cello (Rome, c. 1760) has a beautiful rich mellow tone that admirably suits these concertos. With a distinctly spontaneous feel the soloist gives an outstanding performance, powerfully expressive. One senses Altstaedt’s deep concentration and exemplary musicianship. Assured conductor Michał Nesterowicz draws engaging and tautly committed playing from the wonderful Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Produced in the renowned acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin Dahlem the sound team for Channel Classics provide first-rate sound being clear and especially well balanced. In the booklet notes there is a helpful essay by Clemens Romijn. The works on this recording face stiff competition yet overall these are excellent additions to the catalogue.

Michael Cookson



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