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Cello Concertos of 1966
Sulkhan TSINTSADZE (1925-1991)
Concerto No. 2 in Five Episodes for cello and orchestra (1966) [22.32]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126 (1966) [37.30]
Maximilian Hornung (cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Andris Poga
rec. 2017, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin

For his latest album cellist Maximilian Hornung turns his attention to 1966, which is the year Soviet composers Shostakovich and Tsintsadze each wrote their second cello concerto. The works include one of the greatest cello concertos ever written, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2, while the other is a relatively unknown work by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze, his Cello Concerto No. 2 in Five Episodes. Both concertos were written in the climate of severe artistic constraint imposed by the authorities in Soviet Russia, which helped shape their enigmatic character.

Bavarian born Hornung studied with such renowned teachers as David Geringas, Thomas Grossenbacher and Eldar Issakadze, to whom this album is dedicated. I notice that Hornung also served as principal cellist of Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. It was Issakadze who introduced Hornung to the music of Tsintsadze.

A new name to me, Tsintsadze, who commenced his career as a cellist with Tbilisi Philharmonic String Quartet, became one of Georgia’s leading composers. Tsintsadze’s Second Cello Concerto is a mature work from 1966, cast in five episodes as opposed to the traditional three movements. This approach, we are informed in the notes, “allowed him to minimalize the contrast and development of material, while concentrating on mood painting and using predominantly monothematic material”. One senses Hornung’s complete involvement in Tsintsadze’s soundworld. Hornung’s intensely felt and persuasive playing is admirable throughout, containing significant tonal beauty. The opening episode, Andante sostenuto, is imbued with a deep melancholy, set against a background of a strongly martial nature. Episode two, Andante molto, evokes a cold, bleak and plaintive scene, with Hornung’s weeping cello frequently pitted against a bed of muted strings. Hornung excels in episode three, a four-minute-long cadenza of austerity, icy in character. Characterising the Finale (episode four) marked Presto are fiercely jagged rhythms of fluctuating meter and dynamic. Episode five a, Coda marked Andante molto, which inhabits a similar soundworld of icy desolation to episode two, provides a striking and captivating conclusion to the score.

Shostakovich composed his two cello concertos for Mstislav Rostropovich in the nineteen fifties and sixties. 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. Written in 1966, the last decade of his life, the Second Cello Concerto was premièred at Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday concert in Moscow, Rostropovich was soloist with USSR Symphony Orchestra under Yevgeny Svetlanov. Compared to his 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. With brooding intensity, Hornung provides a sense of bleakness with chilling menace never far away. In the relatively short Scherzo the soloist’s assured playing cuts through the terse and highly rhythmic orchestral writing. The Odessa street vendors’ melody Bubliki (Bread Rolls) is frivolous and laced with mockery. Quite remarkable is the transformation of the Bubliki theme into what feels like a strangled, somewhat tawdry waltz, ending in a gently lapping barcarolle. Heralded by a jubilant horn fanfare and drum roll in the substantial Finale: Allegretto, the climax at 11.30 is outstanding, weighty and full of menace. Hornung brings an aching sadness and introspection, a mood that underpins the remainder of the movement.

In the challenging emotional cross-currents of both scores Hornung radiates assurance. This is engaging playing of steadfast control and focus from Hornung, enhanced by the burnished tone of his cello. Undoubtedly Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is completely at home in these works and under Andris Poga establishes a rewarding rapport with Hornung. The playing of the Berlin orchestra is steadfast with its melodic, dynamic and dramatic elements successfully balanced by Poga. At the renowned recording studio of Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin the engineering team for Myrios Classics has provided a sound quality that is remarkably dependable across each work, cool and vividly clear with satisfying balance between cello and orchestra. Written by Shostakovich biographer and cellist Elizabeth Wilson, the booklet essay ‘Second Cello Concertos of 1966’ is top-drawer.

Maximilian Hornung is in excellent form; however at times in the Shostakovich concerto I wanted additional emotional depth, notably a crushing austerity which the finest recordings contain. For performances of real distinction in both Shostakovich’s cello concertos I will continue to look first of all to the 1984 accounts from Heinrich Schiff, also with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, conducted by the composer’s son Maxim Shostakovich and recorded at Herkulessaal, Munich on Philips. Other outstanding, more recent recordings are the 2015 Herkulessaal, Munich accounts played by Alisa Weilerstein with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Pablo Heras-Casado on Decca. Weilerstein’s recorded the First Cello Concerto under studio conditions and the Second Cello Concerto in live performance.

Michael Cookson

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