SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Antoni Wit/ Ilya Kaler/ Michael Ponder/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550814)
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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75)
Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Censured by Stalin, feted by Khruschev, celebrated by the world, a child of Tsarist Petersburg schooled by the first Leninists, public rhetorician, private soliloquiser: how will history choose to remember Shostakovich? As a chronicler of events epic and tragic, dimensions grotesque and satirical, perspectives elegiac and sentimental. As an essayer, a vivid essayer, of moods and confessions, of emotional discord and harmony. As a man, a genius, of destiny. Boris Tischenko, one of his students: \Our generation grew up on his music, and with his name on our lips. So our hearts would miss a beat when he took off his spectacles to clean them and we caught a glimpse of him, like a knight without armour, close to us, defenceless. The influence of his personality was so great that one began oneself to change, to become ashamed of one's insignificance, one's ineptitude, one's lack of understanding. That such a man lived has made the world a much finer place. We must all learn from him, and not from his music alone". As a human being of profound spiritual bitterness and disillusionment. Testament, the alleged memoirs (New York 1979): "Looking back I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses ...There were no particularly happy moments in my life, no great joys. It was grey and dull and it makes me sad to think about it. It saddens me to admit it, but it's the truth, the unhappy truth". As Soviet Russia's most famous musical son. With Tolstoy he agreed that music was a "stenography of feelings", "capable of expressing overwhelming, sombre drama and euphoria, sorrow and ecstasy, burning wrath and chilling fury, melancholy and rousing merriment -and not only all these emotions but also their subtlest nuances and the transitions in between -which words, painting or sculpture cannot express... [Music] creates a spiritual image of man, teaches him to feel, and expands and liberates his soul... Real music is always revolutionary, it unites people, agitates them and urges them forward... Real music can express only great humane emotions, only progressive, human ideas" (1964).
Defying the cultural anaemia of post-war Soviet Russia, the First Violin Concerto in A minor, (1947-48), dedicated to David Oistrakh, took shape at a time of severe censorship and purge. In the harsh climate of its anti-Semitic, "Zhdanovshchina" circumstance, the late Boris Schwarz reminds us (1980), the only way Shostakovich could survive creatively was by resorting to "two musical idioms: one more simplified and accessible to comply with [Kremlin] guidelines ...the other more complex and abstract to satisfy his own artistic standards". Necessarily, music of the second category - the Concerto, the Fourth Quartet, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry - he kept to himself, not releasing it for public scrutiny until the political thaw succeeding Stalin's death in March 1953.
Following some dozen rehearsals in the presence of the composer, Oistrakh with Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic gave the first performance of the Concerto on 29th October 1955 - to "a rapturous ovation". Not falling "easily into one's hands", it was, he declared, an "innovational" work, remarkable for "the surprising seriousness and depth of its artistic content, its absolute symphonic thinking", that posed "exceedingly interesting problems for the performer, who plays, as it were, a pithy 'Shakespearian' role, which demands complete emotional and intellectual involvement, and gives ample opportunities not only to demonstrate virtuosity but also to reveal deepest feelings, thoughts and moods".
Shostakovich first played through the music at the piano for Oistrakh and his son, Igor, in 1948 - "with a virtuosity which itself would have been admirable ...if he had not been so deeply moved by the music ...The tragedy of the images conquered one as much as the lyrics of the whole structure" (Igor, 1977). Western commentators seem undecided as to the extent of alteration (if any) the work may have undergone in the seven year interim between creation and performance. We have Igor's word, however, that his father knew for certain of "the composer ." working on a second version". We know that David Oistrakh himself not only edited the violin part but also gave "real help in the work's composition", presumably after 1948 (Literaturnaya Gazeta, 8th June 1957), and we have a letter from Shostakovich to Oistrakh both confirming changes made following the first performance, and regretting his inability "to produce a new orchestration of the beginning of the finale".
In the Liszt-Brahms-Busoni tradition, the work is in four movements - Nocturne, Scherzo, Passacaglia and Burlesca, with a Cadenza (as organically germane as anything in Beethoven) bridging the last two. Schwarz (Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1972) speaks of the "contemplative and ethereal" character of the first; the "rough-hewn middle section suggesting a Jewish folk- dance" of the "sparkling" second; the "lapidary grandeur" of the third; and the "devil-may-care abandonment" of the last. Over a decade earlier, Oistrakh had found other adjectives. Atmospherically, the Nocturne (originally adagio) was "not all melancholy hopelessness, but ...a suppression of feelings, of tragedy in the best sense of purification". The Scherzo (the soloist "concertising" with the woodwind) was "evil, demoniac, prickly". The Burlesca, on the other hand, he considered to have been wrongly labelled, the imagery of its title communicating little of "the festive character or Russian colour of the music, suggestive of a joyous folk party, even the bagpipes of travelling musicians. I would look for another name to convey the wildness and shining jubilation of its deeply Russian experience". In consequence of his legendary autumn 1972 London recording with Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, he wrote of the Cadenza as stemming "from a gradual dynamic intensification demanding an irreversible forward movement and a gigantic inexhaustible vigour".
Stylistically and thematically, the music's strata of peasant gaiety and profound gravity challengingly span the earlier (cheerful) Ninth Symphony and later (serious) Tenth. Indeed certain elements -passages from the Scherzo, for instance, the autobiographical DSCH motto (the notes D, E flat, C, B in German nomenclature) - were to resurface again in the latter. Elsewhere Shostakovich's inspiration seems to recall his greater wartime utterances - the Yiddish step of the Second Piano Trios finale, the passacaglia of the Eighth Symphony. The First Violin Concerto is scored for piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four horns, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, xylophone, celesta, two harps and strings.
"The shyest and most nervous human being I have ever seen," remembered Robert Craft (1962). "He chews not merely his nails but his fingers, twitches his pouty mouth and chin, chain-smokes, wiggles his nose in constant adjustment of his spectacles, looks querulous one moment and ready to cry the next. His hands tremble, he stutters, his whole frame wobbles when he shakes hands - which reminds us of Auden - and his knees knock when he speaks ...He has a habit of staring, too, then of turning guiltily away when caught ...There is no betrayal of the thoughts behind those frightened, very intelligent eyes." A Soviet documentary film (1971) portrays him "seated in t