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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op.77 (1947/48, rev. 1955) [31:28]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op.129 (1967) [29:23]
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/Alan Gilbert
rec. live 6 & 9 December 2012 (1), 29 & 30 October 2015 (2), Großer Saal, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany
BIS BIS-2247 SACD [61:41]

Twentieth century masterworks, Shostakovich’s two violin concertos have done well in the recording studio over the last couple of decades. It is the first concerto that has proved extremely popular with soloists, and the choice in the record catalogue is broad.

Here Frank Peter Zimmermann has recorded both works in live performances with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester conducted by Alan Gilbert at the Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. Zimmermann is undoubtedly one of the finest violinists of his generation. I saw him perform as recently as September 2016, playing Bartók’s First Violin Concerto with the Bayerisches Staastsorchester, under Kirill Petrenko at the Philharmonie, as part of the Musikfest Berlin. Another aspect of Zimmermann’s career that I greatly admire is his founding of Trio Zimmermann together with violist Antoine Tamestit and cellist Christian Poltéra, both distinguished soloists. Since these recordings, the celebrated NDR Sinfonieorchester has been recently rebranded as the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester. It is resident at the recently opened Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall) in Hamburg. The renamed orchestra played under its principal conductor Thomas Hengelbrock at the official opening concerts of the Elbphilharmonie on 11-12 January 2017.

Although Shostakovich had already written his Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra in C minor (1933), he was over forty before he composed his first string concerto. The Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor was completed in 1948. Those immediate post-war years were a time of strict censorship for composers in Soviet Russia. Consequently, Shostakovich consigned the unpublished concerto to the drawer for a number of years. In 1955, when the political climate was thought sufficiently improved, Shostakovich revised the score. It was premièred by the renowned soloist and its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The opus number of 77 was altered to 99 at the publication of the full score in 1955, but the original opus number has now been restored. Well received at its première, First Violin Concerto has become acknowledged as one of the finest concertos of the twentieth century. A note in the accompanying booklet explains that “Zimmermann has based his performance of the solo part on the autograph manuscript (with the composer’s own metronome markings and bowing instructions), and not on the usually-heard version edited by David Oistrakh.”

The four-movement score opens with a Nocturne (Moderato) with a sinister atmosphere generated right from the opening bars. In Zimmermann’s hands this music feels desolate and austere, with a near nerve shattering tension. Next comes the demonical Scherzo (Allegro) into which Gilbert builds weighty orchestral climaxes of considerable emotional impact. Throughout, Zimmermann’s brisk playing of vitality and commitment feels perfectly in accord with the orchestra. In the Scherzo there appears Shostakovich’s DSCH motif, described by Robert Dearling as the composer’s “self-affirming statement of defiance and warning…” (Shostakovich - The Man and his Music edited by Christopher Norris, pub. Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. 1982). Probably the most celebrated movement is the Passacaglia developed from an ostinato figure emanating in the cellos. In music that has been said to serve as a requiem for victims of the Stalinist regime, Gilbert provides a granite-like power with an ominous grandeur. Zimmermann plays an extended and exposed, song-like melody of a marked mournful quality as if his instrument is weeping. Gilbert tightens the screw and the tension, and sheer declamatory power of the orchestra become almost unbearable. The cadenza, an unremitting rhapsodic melody, is progressively disconsolate and introverted. His line then becomes less melodic, increasingly disgruntled and more frenzied. Following straight on, the final movement Burlesque is vigorous and boisterous, generating tremendous excitement. It feels as if Zimmermann’s dancing violin has a gypsy-like freedom. Memorable is the spiky theme partly played pizzicato. Leaving a quite dramatic impression, the concerto ends uncomfortably abrupt on a wild and breathless note.

Shostakovich’s final concerto, the Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, was completed in 1967. It was written for his friend and the score’s dedicatee David Oistrakh, who was to give the official première the same year in Moscow under conductor Kirill Kondrashin. Intended as the composer’s present for Oistrakh’s sixtieth birthday, it seems that Shostakovich was a year too early. Rather undeservedly this dark C sharp minor Concerto is heard far less in performance than the First Violin Concerto, but despite not being as immediately appealing it is hardly less compelling. Unusually each of the three movements contains a cadenza and some of the double stopping makes the score extremely challenging.

The C sharp minor score commences in a pessimistic manner with the mournful violin pitted against mysterious low strings. It is not long before the character of Zimmermann’s violin part feels like a desperate cry for attention against oppression. In the cadenza the pace slows, with the violin taking on a quieter, more reflective quality. In the final section, with a starker sense of bleakness and desolation, the writing has become even more despondent, with only the occasional shaft of light. Zimmermann’s unwavering playing of the Adagio creates a sound world of melancholy and chilling reflection. A lament from the solo flute provides additional emotional pain. Gilbert thickens the orchestral textures before the soloist continues his doleful line. After the cadenza, Zimmermann maintains an austere intensity and foreboding which feel unrelenting. Splendidly played, a doleful solo horn against the orchestra brings the movement to a close. Continuing directly into the final movement, the mood alters to one that is welcoming and generally upbeat, with Zimmermann’s part conveying a sparkling, dance-like quality. The complex cadenza is striking for its varied content and tempi. The soloist displays his virtuosity to significant effect. In the appealing final section the orchestra’s paying is vital and alert as if in a race with Zimmermann’s chattering violin to the finish line.

Alan Gilbert’s assured control of tempo, pacing and dynamics is particularly successful. One senses judicious preparation and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester perform strikingly, with the wind playing a sheer delight. Recorded during concert performances at Großer Saal, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg the sound team has captured the high frequencies well. On my standard player the sound from this hybrid SACD has a cool clarity and good presence together with a pleasing balance between soloist and orchestra. There is virtually no extraneous sound to worry about with these live recordings, and there is no applause.

For my first choice in these violin concertos, I marginally prefer the 2006 accounts from soloist Arabella Steinbacher playing with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Andris Nelsons, recorded at Herkulessaal, Munich. Steinbacher’s playing is irresistible, delivering strong and forthright interpretations of a remarkable intensity that feel in total accord with Shostakovich’s unique sound world. Nevertheless, stunningly performed and recorded, Zimmermann’s inspiring release on BIS deserves substantial praise.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Marc Bridle



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