Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major, op.107
Cello Concerto No.2 in G major, op.126
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Kawotice) conducted by Antoni Wit

NAXOS 8.550813
[64’10”] budget-price

This review is amicably sponsored by Rock Records.

by Derek Lim

The two cello concertos that Dmitri Shostakovich wrote were both dedicated to Mtislav Rostropovich. The great cellist admired Dmitri’s music very much, and he had on several occasions wanted to ask the composer for a concerto, but he consulted Dmitri’s wife at the time and she advised him not to ask him directly for one.

Left: Well, you ought to be ashamed if you don’t recognise these two.

Nevertheless Rostropovich was to get his concerto. He only found out that Shostakovich had written this new cello concerto after he (Rostropovich) had read the morning papers. Shostakovich met him later that day, showed him the score, and then asked him humbly if Rostropovich would accept his dedication. To use a hackneyed expression, “the rest is history”.

What can we make out of this first concerto, the Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major, op.107? Shostakovich had by that time (the concerto was written in 1959, 16 years before his death) already developed a very personal voice his neurosis in his music, sarcasm. He was a yurodivy (roughly translated, a person of high moral and philosophical ideals, who went against the grain of society and criticized it.) This satire is unmistakable in the concerto.

The first movement starts with its famous cello theme, “allegro” on four notes, which sounds very superficially like the inverted “DSCH” theme (D-E-flat-C-B), over a mock-military accompaniment. These four notes are repeated obsessively throughout the movement and are transformed into a typically Russian-sounding theme. The whole first movement is very busy, the orchestration is of course very Shostakovichian, which means a very pronounced percussion section, frequent use of snare drum and timpani, shrieking woodwind, and a whole lot of other Shostakovich signatures.

The second movement is one of great, touching beauty. Strangely or not, I am reminded of Stravinsky’s neo-classical Pulcinella when I hear its beginning. The orchestration is similar to one of the movements in Pulcinella where the entire string section plays on mutes, producing a humming, buzzing effect. The whole sound is very Jewish.

Here the cello’s expressive abilities are used to its full. There is a lot of lovely cello writing here, and it could only have been conceived by Shostakovich (right). The orchestration is generally sparse. There are moments of incredible isolation, for example the place where the cello plays in harmonics and is answered by celesta.

The third movement is a “Cadenza”, in which polyphonic techniques are used to combine themes from the first and second movements. It is very difficult and the cello writing is sometimes very tortured. It is meditative and can be compared in a way to a great monologue in a play. This leads up to the fourth and last movement.

This fast finale, Allegro con moto, starts with a theme which was apparently derived from one of Stalin’s favourite songs, which Shostakovich twisted into its shape here, with its extremely ‘tiring’ sound orchestration. It is reminiscent of, and has all the sincerity of a cat smiling at a mouse. I like to think of this as portraying Stalin himself. After much development the defiant first movement four-note theme (which I take to represent Shostakovich himself) returns with a vengeance. The movement ends triumphantly, in Shostakovichian manner.

In this recording, the cellist Maria Kliegel tends towards the freer style of playing. In fact the whole idea of her playing is intriguing. She was at one time a Rostropovich prize-winner, as well as a student of the Hungarian cellist Janos Starker. Her playing in the concerto shows great emotional range, although just that little spark sometimes would have been so much more convincing.

The first movement is played with much commitment from both the PRNSO and Kliegel (left). The acoustic of the recording is very bright, and the colour of the orchestra is sometimes masked by this. The soloist and the orchestra all seem to be spot-miked to some extent. Kliegel is technically very firm; her insights into the work are something else. Somehow Rostropovich’s own more-hysterical approach to Shostakovich’s writing works rather better. Kliegel is freer in a way, but she misses some of the desperateness of the writing. The second movement is lyrically played and well-handled, and very convincing. Her cadenza playing is superb. The last movement is likewise played with much virtuosity and is thoroughly convincing.

I have not heard Heinrich Schiff play this, whose version (on Philips 412 526-2) I gather is superlative. In the meantime, Kliegel’s recording of the First Concerto is thoroughly convincing and is not long-drawn as I fear some versions can be. If it lacks some of the frisson of “live” performance, that is borne out by the flawless playing from both Kliegel and the very colourful orchestra, which at most times sound very confident. A recording which I will return to.

The Cello Concerto No.2 in G major, op.126 is not as often played as the First Concerto. Here Shostakovich writes in a more eclectic style, which sometimes makes things difficult to follow. There are three movements in the Concerto and the first is a broad Adagio. This is full of agony and despite many lyrical passages of much hope this movement ends pianissimo.

The second movement is an exercise in Shostakovichian wit and it drips with sarcasm. It starts on a pseudo-march kind of theme followed by a jaunty tune that is said to derive from a pretzel-selling man’s signature tune which Shostakovich knew. No matter this harmless thing has a dangerous edge, and it soon reveals itself in its full horror. An air of forced joyfulness, not unlike the end of the Fifth Symphony the air of someone putting a gun to your head and saying “be happy”. Madness is not far here, and Shostakovich takes the listener through his own spirit, which refuses to be put down by his surroundings.

The third and final movement is one of a return to childhood. The movement is often sentimental and after trying to develop it ends up in an archaic theme (in D major I think) an old-fashioned turn that could have come from Mozart or Haydn. Placed in this movement, and in view of what has taken place in the first two movements, this is especially poignant music. The end of the Concerto has the cello playing a sustained bowed note, over which little percussion figures are heard, which sounds childish but desolate at the same time. This reminds me of some of the orchestration in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Also I cannot help but remember the sleigh-bells of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. All these point to a return to childhood. The Concerto ends defiantly, with the same sustained cello note suddenly becoming louder and cutting off abruptly. The effect is disenchanting.

Maria Kliegel is less well-equipped to handle this concerto – from the emotional point of view, she just lacks something. It might be something as subtle as being unable to place herself completely in the composer’s shoes. Technically she can be said to be flawless, but Shostakovich needs more than that. I find that sometimes she doesn’t catch what he’s trying to say his gestures for instance. Somehow she just doesn’t bring out the full agony in the concerto.

The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Kawotice and Antoni Wit give admirable accompaniment, very confident, very colourful. For this Concerto the cello is placed nicely in the orchestra, and textures are always quite transparent. This is most of the time a good thing, but if the cello were less well-miked sometimes the cello-against-orchestra battles would have been more pronounced. There is such a thing as too much help, unfortunately!

Overall this concerto is handled a lot less convincingly than the first. The feeling of detachment is sometimes too great. This is not music to play when you go to sleep, nor when you iron your clothes (as a friend of mine did when listening to Mahler!) and you need complete concentration and to be immersed in the work yourself. I still prefer Rostropovich’s recordings, especially his ‘live’ 1961 recording with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, in his recently re-issued “The Russian Years” series on EMI (The Cello Concertos come with recordings of the cello sonatas of Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Khachaturian, all played to legendary effect by Rostropovich – EMI CZS 5 72295-2, 2 discs, budget-price!). Rostropovich’s recording with Ozawa is especially fine too, with the conductor and orchestra in good form (DG Classikon 439 481-2).

In Singapore, Naxos CDs can be easily ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).

Derek Lim is dying of rehearsalism.

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304: 27.9.98. cor.25.10.98

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