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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 (1959) [28.00]
Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126 (1966) [32.52]
Alisa Weilerstein (cello)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. September (Studio No. 1)/October 2015 (Live No. 2) Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
DECCA 483 0835 [60.53]

On her fifth album for Decca American cellist Alisa, Weilerstein collaborates with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado. After the remarkable success of Weilerstein’s recordings of the Elgar and Dvořák cello concertos, this new Shostakovich release is eagerly anticipated. Weilerstein’s interpretations are bolstered by her meeting with the Soviet composer’s great friend Mstislav Rostropovich, for a masterclass, soaking up the eminent virtuoso’s special insights. Both works were recorded in the renowned acoustic of the Herkulessaal, Munich. Weilerstein produced the first concerto in studio conditions and the second a few days later in concert performance.

Shostakovich wrote his two cello concertos for Rostropovich in the 1950s and 60s in the midst of the severe artistic constraints, demanded by the authorities in Soviet Russia, which have helped shaped the enigmatic character of the scores. Both concertos contain outstanding episodes of technical virtuosity and profound emotional expression for the soloist together with symphonic writing both considerable and challenging for the orchestra.

The First Cello Concerto written in 1959 bears a dedication to Rostropovich who introduced the work in 1959 with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky at Leningrad. The opening movement Allegretto is determined, becoming increasingly troubled and agitated with Weilerstein providing a distinct searching quality. Marked Moderato in the second movement, the soloist communicates a mournful, deep introspection. After an intense, rather earnest, section, Weilerstein towards the end develops a mood of almost unbearable sorrow, creating a cold, inhospitable landscape. Rising to the challenges of the writing, Weilerstein relishes the anxiety laden Cadenza and one wonders if the composer was depicting a state of mental instability. Weilerstein generates an abundance of edgy, nervous energy in the Finale: Allegretto with writing punctuated with anguished cries. Under Heras-Casado, the violent conclusion to the movement makes a striking impact.

Written in 1966, the last decade of his life, the Second Cello Concerto was again dedicated to Rostropovich who premičred the score conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov with the USSR Symphony Orchestra at Shostakovich’s 60th birthday concert in Moscow. Compared to the more popular First Cello Concerto, this relatively underrated score has now gone a considerable way to establishing its rightful place in the repertoire. Opening with a Largo, the predominantly mournful writing profoundly depicts a bleak, barren and freezing wasteland a feature often heard in the composer’s music. The darkly brooding intensity of Weilerstein’s cello provides a spine tingling effect. In the relatively short Scherzo, the soloist’s dynamic playing cuts through the terse and highly rhythmic orchestral writing which generates the feeling of a sardonic dance by a force of evil. Heralded by a jubilant horn fanfare and drum roll, the substantial fourteen minute Finale: Allegretto soon changes its character. Weilerstein brings an aching sadness and introspection, a mood that underpins the remainder of the movement.

In the challenging emotional cross-currents of both scores, Weilerstein communicates remarkable assurance with absorbing playing of steadfast control and a steely beauty. The American’s William Forster cello (1790) has a rich burnished tone and she clearly relishes every note of these twentieth-century masterworks. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks knows these works extremely well and under Pablo Heras-Casado demonstrates a splendid rapport with the soloist. Without question, the playing of the Munich orchestra is entirely committed with its melodic and dramatic elements so well balanced by Heras-Casado.

The engineering team in the Herkulessaal has provided a sound quality that is remarkably consistent across each work, vividly clear, with good presence and the slightly forward placed cello feels ideal.

In the Shostakovich cello concertos the partnership of Weilerstein and Pablo Heras-Casado is compellingly fruitful. These are performances of real distinction that can join the elevated status of the accounts from soloist Heinrich Schiff also with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by the composer’s son Maxim Shostakovich and recorded for Philips at the same Herkulessaal, Munich in 1984.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dave Billinge (Recording of the Month)



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