Summary for the Busy Executive: Fire and ice.
I don't know how it is for real musicologists, but for me Shostakovich's music breaks into four periods: the early work (Symphony #1, first piano concerto); the modernist work of the Thirties (Lady Macbeth, the Fifth Symphony); the music during World War II (Symphonies 6, 7, and 8); the music beginning around the infamous 1948 Zhdanov decree in 1948, which put the best Soviet composers on notice that Siberia and worse were real possibilities. One might argue a for a fifth phase (the last symphony and string quartet, possibly the violin sonata).
The two violin concerti come from early in the fourth period. The composer wrote them both with David Oistrakh in mind. Both sum up the nightmare of the last century that continues to our own day. I begin to hear that strain as early as the Sixth Symphony, a view of the world that goes beyond despair to pure acid and angry lament and where Modernist exercises and literary horrors (as in Lady Macbeth) step aside for everyday horrors. Shostakovich had completed the first violin concerto as his Op. 77 in 1947 but felt that the political atmosphere would not tolerate it. He put it away and brought it back in 1955 as Op. 99, when it finally got published. Even then, the Soviet regime (and its attendant resources) were less than thrilled. Essentially, they did their best to ignore the work. Oistrakh's enthusiasm for the concerto, however, kept it alive.
In four movements, the concerto begins with a "Nocturne," a brooding discourse on two major themes. If night really inspired the composer, it may have been one of those bitterly cold, eerily clear Russian nights. The movement proceeds as a modified sonata, at least on paper, but dramatically something else goes on. The two themes gradually interpenetrate and wind up as something new and more intense than either separately. One also finds a curious little melodic turn that a few years later the composer will tie to his iconic D-S-C-H (D – Eb – C – B) musical signature, notably in the first cello concerto. Indeed, I hear DSCH starting in the second-movement scherzo, but it comes across as momentary rather than as something of great rhetorical import. The riff of the first movement delivers the main matter here, and the movement spits like a drop of water on a hot grill. Neither of these movements are by any measure routine. The third movement, however – a passacaglia, a contrapuntal display over a repeating bass line – lifts the concerto even higher. In fact, it may count as one of the finest symphonic discourses in Shostakovich's output. The composer, from early on, had a fascination with older forms, like passacaglia and fugue. In many ways, he puts on a virtuoso compositional display. The bass line is not only unusually long, it's an odd seventeen bars. He gradually moves the bass line away from the lower instruments, and the theme makes its way through various registers of the orchestra with increasing power, climaxing in an overwhelming statement on the solo violin. From there, it's as if things have shattered. The violin increasingly confines itself in and around a single note – an enervated echo, perhaps, of the "one-note" theme of the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh. However, he makes you almost forget the formal aspects in favor of hard talk. Different listeners, of course, get different things from this music. For me, it's a lament – Lear on the plain, railing against a horrible reality, not mad, but clear-eyed and aghast at the desolation. Shostakovich has dug himself a deep hole. How can he possibly follow this? Yet, he does indeed move to a finale, using the Beethoven-Brahms strategy of transition and quasi-recitative. This takes the form of a long violin cadenza, which allows the listener to decompress. The solo instrument, exhausted by the passacaglia, begins with the "one note," the psychological ebb of the concerto, and from there gathers steam. Wisps of previous movements are recalled, including the riff and even a very close relative of DSCH. The rhythm becomes more and more insistent, until finally a rondo finale erupts with a boom from the kettledrum. It sounds like an update of the finale to the Tchaikovsky concerto, with the same general dance rhythm but with Shostakovich's acid harmonies and far more brutal outlook as well. Instead of Tchaikovsky's peasant joy, we get pure manic. Toward the end, the beginning of the passacaglia bass sounds almost subliminally on the French horns. The violin seems to notice this and throws it into the glare of a frantic coda.
The second violin concerto comes from the stormy Sixties. Symphony #13 "Babi Yar" had already made a huge hit in the West, to the dismay of Soviet officialdom, and indeed began to force a re-evaluation of Shostakovich from party and musical hack to something like his current status, at least in the West. Ironically, young Russians now tend to see him as the old time-server, toadying to Stalinists and post-Stalinists alike. Compared to the first, the second concerto concentrates more. It is less public and more personal an utterance. If anything, it's even bleaker than the earlier work. The orchestral sound is leaner, the lines more sinewy. Fewer instruments tend to play at any moment. The first of its three movements contrasts a darkly lyrical idea with a ghostly little marche militaire. The riff appears here, too, but more as a generating principle, rather than as a full-fledged theme. Shostakovich seems to have absorbed it into his musical DNA. As in the first concerto, Shostakovich flirts with sonata form in his characteristic way: the two moods often proceed simultaneously, with one or the other momentarily gaining the upper hand. The dark song comes back toward the end, and we reasonably expect the movement to end with that. But no, Shostakovich brings back the little march, even more skeletally than before. This confounding of expectations characterizes the composer's late period. If Shostakovich seemed emotionally elusive before (and the fights over the "meaning" of his music bolster this idea), he becomes Sphinx-like as he gets older, until we get something like the Symphony #15, which tantalizes us with keys to the composer's entire musical corpus but hides the locks.
The second movement has affinities with the first concerto's passacaglia. It's not a passacaglia, but it does tend to repeat the same ideas with little variation. This builds intensity. One hears two main themes, of different shapes but the same in mood – unrelieved melancholy. The movement ends in a kind of affectless funk. As in the first concerto, a brief transitional passage on the solo violin (considerably shorter than its counterpart) leads us directly into the finale, another rondo. For the first time in this concerto, we get genuinely fast music, though hardly extrovert. The folk element, relatively strong in the first concerto, lies deep beneath the surface, if at all. Shostakovich doesn't even feign exuberance here, for the most part. The music doesn't dance so much as lacerate. The scoring is as lean as rawhide. About half-way through, the violin takes its full cadenza, mainly a discussion of the rondo but with ideas from the earlier movements occasionally peeking out. The orchestra re-enters, fuller this time, but keeping its leanness. The big ending strikes me as ironically pro forma.
The disc ends with a Shostakovich lollipop: the romance from The Gadfly concert suite, arranged by another hand from Shostakovich's film score. The composer made money through his film work, and much of the music to The Gadfly sounds like it. The film itself is a silly romance-adventure – the Soviet equivalent to Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche or Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel. This is Shostakovich doing his best Tchaikovsky impression, and it's pretty damn good. When we compare it with the two concerti, the cream toffee of it all jars. Even one of the Satirical Dances would have worked better.
Since their early obscurity, the violin concerti have become often-played and often recorded. You have your choice of violinists: Chang, Hahn, Josefowicz, Kremer, Midori, Mordkovitch, Oliveira, Perlman, Salerno-Sonnenberg (I've heard her live – wonderful! – but not the recording), Spivakov, Vengerov, among others. The première violinist – in both senses of the phrase – remains David Oistrakh. The two concerti's entrance into standard rep has, to a great extent, smoothed out the rough edges, and for me rough edges make these concerti. With Oistrakh, one gets a sense of struggle with new, difficult music, as well as an uncanny affinity for or familiarity with the composer's psychic world. Daniel Hope does, I believe, a smart thing by joining with Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son. I had the pleasure of hearing the younger Shostakovich on a regular basis. For certain kinds of music – and I include the music of his father – he was damn good as well as smart about what he programmed. By his own admission, Hope learned something. However, structure is not the conductor's strong suit. He goes mainly for the gut, rather than for the head. He does best in things like the last three movements of the first concerto and the finale to the second, and it's a very good best.
Yet the composer aims for both gut and head. This becomes a problem in the "Nocturne" of the first concerto, where the thread occasionally gets fumbled. It's also a problem in the second concerto, which has fewer obvious jolts. Where Oistrakh and Rozhdestvensky build spans of almost unbearable tension, Hope and Shostakovich give us something far more relaxed. Hope, however, remains a fabulous violinist, but there are other fabulous violinists out there. Still, for the coupling and the price, this disc remains in contention.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz