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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]

Shostakovich composed two violin concertos and two cello concertos dedicated respectively to David Oistrakh and to Mstislav Rostropovich who both championed these works. The parallel might still be furthered when considering these works' content and structure, albeit only superficially. The First Violin Concerto is clearly on a symphonic scale in four movements which might be compared and, to a certain point, opposed to, the First Cello Concerto, also in four movements (more about this below) but on a somewhat less expansive symphonic scale. The Second Violin Concerto and the Second Cello Concerto were composed almost during the same period, i.e. in the mid-60s, and share a number of characteristics with other late works such as the Fifteenth String Quartet, the Violin Sonata and the Viola Sonata, all of them sombre and pessimistic pieces.

However, compared to these late pieces, the Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major Op.107 is a relatively easy-going piece of music which probably also accounts for its popularity among cellists and audiences as well. In 2017, the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition added a new session devoted to the cello and, remarkably and tellingly enough, six finalists out of twelve played Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. The First Cello Concerto is, as already hinted in this review, in four movements although it must immediately be added that the third movement is in fact the big cadenza launching the animated finale. The first movement presents a few themes or basic materials that will keep reappearing throughout the entire work, especially the four-note theme heard at the outset and that will often be taken up by the almost concertante horn whose part is indeed rather exposed. It must also be noted that, unlike the First Violin Concerto, the orchestral forces here are quite modest: double wind, timpani, celesta and strings and one single brass instrument required being the solo horn. The first movement's fast, nervous pulse hardly slackens throughout and the music is full of surprises and skips along an almost unstoppable way. The slow movement stands in full contrast with the preceding movement and it is mostly expansively lyrical, albeit building up to a short-live climax. There follows a fairly lengthy cadenza leading straight into the lively finale in which horn and cello reprise their dialogue as heard in the course of the first movement.

As already mentioned earlier, the Cello Concerto No.2 in G major Op.126 is a somewhat later work and, one might add, quite substantial. Unlike its predecessor, it is written on a somewhat larger symphonic scale calling for considerable orchestral forces often used quite sparingly throughout while the full forces are called upon at a few climactic moments of quite shattering impact. The Second Cello Concerto is laid-out in three movements  and opens with a fairly developed reflective Largo, not unlike the Nocturne of the First Violin Concerto, alluding to some of the composer's earlier works and including the almost mandatory DSCH motif as well as a quotation of a street song from Odessa, Akhmatova's birthplace, which has a certain significance as the concerto was conceived as a memorial piece for the poet Anna Akhmatova. After this fairly developed and rather complex movement, the prevailing nostalgic mood is briefly dispelled by what is probably Shostakovich's shortest Scherzo leading eventually straight into another developed finale quite unlike that of the First Cello Concerto. The music is quite impassioned at times and punctuated by thrilling horn fanfares. The percussion, too, is much to the fore in the course of the third movement and it is the percussion that eventually leads into the conclusion in which the music slowly ticks away into complete silence. Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto is undoubtedly one of his finest late works and one that, I think, has still to receive its due.

I have come to appreciate Alban Gerhardt's musicality and immaculate technique in listening to his formidable recording of Britten's cello works (Hyperion CDA67941/2). In recording Shostakovich's cello concertos, he faces some strong competition, not least Rostropovich who had made these works his own, but the strength of great music is that it can be open to interpretations sometimes slightly different from what one may have come to expect. Rostropovich's shadow looms large over these concertos but “this does not mean we have to do everything differently to him, but we should arrive at our final interpretation of a piece of music by using our own resources and inspiration, and not through note-for-note emulation”. I for one thoroughly enjoyed his take on these great masterpieces which he plays with consummate assurance and deep understanding while Saraste and his WDR orchestra support him with full-hearted commitment. There are full notes too for this natural, clear and well-balanced recording. I warmly commend this very fine release to you.

Hubert Culot

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