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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major Op.107 (1959) [26:44]
Cello Concerto No.2 in G major Op.126 (1966) [30:38]
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
SWR Sinfonieorchester/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Rec. 2018, Philharmonie Köln, Germany
HYPERION CDA68340 [57:22]

In all Shostakovich wrote six concertos, two each for piano, violin, and cello. Of those the two for cello are the fourth and fifth in chronological order, only the Violin Concerto No. 2 having been written later. The cello concertos are very well represented on disc and a performer needs to exert himself to stand out among the various versions. Alban Gerhardt firmly achieves this in his new Hyperion disc.

The Cello Concerto No. 1 was written in 1959 and is in four movements, with a solo part worthy of the dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. In a note for this disc Gerhardt writes of his life-long admiration for Rostropovich’s recordings of the concerto and of his own, less subjective view, of the work. To my mind Gerhardt’s objective approach works well in this work of “…compact, hard-hitting logic…” as Robert Layton described it. With a satirical but anguished first movement Gerhardt’s approach enhances the mournful atmosphere and this effect is only increased in the moderato second movement where the desolate tone reminds one of the composer’s Symphony No. 8. The material of this movement is further developed in the amazing cadenza, a full-length movement that slightly brightens the atmosphere before a mostly ironic last movement, with some remaining uneasiness.

The year 1966 saw Shostakovich’s 60th birthday which was much celebrated. However, the two works he wrote in that year, the String Quartet No. 11 and the Cello Concerto No. 2, are both elegiac in tone and share musical as well as emotional elements. While the Cello Concerto No. 1 made use of references to several of the composer’s works, as well as the famous DSCH motif, in the second concerto such references, while present, are less obvious, giving way to themes shared with the eleventh quartet (cf. the second movement of each work). Shostakovich did not need much prompting to write music of a mournful cast, and both these works were written as memorials, the quartet to Vasily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet (which did so much for the composer’s quartets) and the concerto to the great poetess Anna Akhmatova. Gerhardt’s playing in this concerto is more emotional than in the first, as befits an elegy for someone greatly admired by Shostakovich. This is especially true in the opening Largo movement where he ably navigates the movement’s mixture of grief and reflection. Gerhadt’s technical ability is to the fore in the Scherzo based on a street song from Akhmatova’s native Odessa, developed with such fecundity as to astound the listener. The Scherzo continues directly into the Finale, which itself occupies half the length of the concerto, and contains a fascinating mixture of military fanfares, neo-Classical cadences and perhaps the most beautiful lyrical passages in either concerto. All of this is synthesized not once but several times, but in different ways, as Shostakovich demonstrates his capacity for thematic development. Gerhardt does well in illuminating these metamorphoses of the work’s basic materials.

As can be seen, Alban Gerhardt provides performances of the concertos that are both well thought-out and technically expert. He is ably accompanied by Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the SWR Sinfonieorchester. I had some questions as to orchestral balance and the Philharmonie Köln has a somewhat cavernous sound, but it is Gerhardt’s playing that is the attraction here. An excellent introduction to these two concertos.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Hubert Culot

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