INKPOT#63 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SHOSTAKOVICH Violin Concerto No.1 – An Ink-troduction


An Ink-troduction to the First Violin Concerto

by Evan Stephens

Recommended Recordings

In one of his critical periods of development and creative power, the middle 1950’s, Shostakovich wrote two of his most acclaimed works: the famous Tenth Symphony and the hugely popular Violin Concerto No.1. Together, they represent Shostakovich in his most disturbing symbolist vein of composition. The subject matter and counterpoint utilized in these works are much more mature and less satirical; they are far removed from his earlier concertos and symphonies indeed!

Although there are similarities, the Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 99 is a very different work from the Symphony. Although containing many personal elements, the Tenth Symphony is a very outward looking expansive work; the First Violin Concerto is very inward-looking, introspective, halcyon and unrestrained alternatingly, more in character with the nature of the violin.

The first movement, in a very unorthodox fashion, is entitled “Nocturne”, a type of musical piece invented for (and thus more associated with) the piano by the Irish composer John Field (1782-1837) and then developed with incredible scope and voice by Frederic Chopin. Shostakovich presents us with a supremely beautiful movement, beginning “Moderato” (like the Tenth Symphony) and, again, sustaining a quiet mood of meditation and memory for quite a long time. The upper registers of the violin are used to their full extent, lyrical and invading, lilting over adept orchestrations. I often listen to this movement in moments of self-analysis, which is what I personally think Shostakovich intended. And, like the Symphony, it has a tolling bass-line which is pervasive throughout.

The second movement of the concerto, a Scherzo, is very different from the first, and can be related to the second movement of the Symphony. It is said to be in D-flat, although surely only part of the time. Key signature to Shostakovich, like Scriabin and sometimes Chopin, meant little or nothing. (In his later years Scriabin didn’t even attempt to write his piano sonatas in a key – he left them in an open signature; Chopin’s Prelude in C# minor, Opus 45, ventures through 30 keys although marked, obviously, in C# minor). Although perhaps the whole piece is written in A minor, it doesn’t stay there for long – the violin and orchestra venture all over the tonal map, into keys I never thought possibly related to A minor.

Shostakovich with David Oistrakh The second movement is sharp and rhythmically vibrant, with some incredibly involving violin runs; the D-S-C-H theme even recurs here, a whole movement earlier than in the Symphony. The violin is given some pedal points and octaves, both excruciatingly challenging, in a dance-like atmosphere in 3/8 time, providing a sharp contrast to the solitude of the first movement. Yet there is always the feeling that all the action is happening with the composer’s own mind, like a fire being lit and then fanned.

The third movement contains more thematic references to the score of the Tenth Symphony, although they are less obvious because the instrumentation has been changed. This movement is probably my favorite in the work. It is strikingly unusual in that it is labelled “Passacaglia”, a title increasing found in modern classical music, which has its roots much further back (eg. Bach). It has powerful orchestra motifs and convincingly strong violin runs – the cadenza is incredibly complex and difficult (but for an acknowledged master of this music such as Oistrakh – see below – this poses no problems whatsoever).

The fourth movement is entitled “Burlesca”, and is a marvel; a true whirlwind of sound and fury. It contains several dance-like themes interwoven and elaborated vigorously, like the old legend of the boy dancing the Tarantella to sweat out the tarantulas poison. The cadenza here, too, is almost beyond imagination! Full of exciting music and ideas, this movement, like the finale from the Symphony, is fast, frenzied, and triumphant.

Overall, the the Violin Concerto No.1 and Symphony No.10 show a great kinship, though vastly different are their magnitudes and directions. Many interesting musical concepts, such as the D-S-C-H theme, and the excursions from the written key, are revealed and explored thoroughly and maturely. I enjoyed hearing both works immensely and they both hold a sacred and immovable place in my collection.

Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.99: Selected Recordings & Reviews

David Oistrakh (violin). Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Mitropoulos. Debut recording of the Op. 99 Violin Concerto in A minor, 1955. Coupled with the Cello Concerto No.1 (premiere under Rostropovich)SONY Columbia Masterworks MHK 63327. [63’10”] mid-price.

Oistrakh, the acknowledged master of this music, has no problems whatsoever. The cadenza in the third movement is almost beyond imagination – how Oistrakh pulled it off I would like to know; if only I could have been at the studio for the recording! This premiere recording of the work (plus that of the First Cello Concerto) is a special document in terms of performance and music history.

Ilya Kaler (violin). Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Kawotice)/Wit. (Both concertos)NAXOS 8.550814 [71’03”] budget-price

Click here for full review! by Derek Lim.

In his spare time, Evan Stephens tunes his Stradivarius and plays the 23rd Paganini Caprice, trying to get that tricky 56th measure *just* right. . .

Back to the Classical Index!… or read previous violin concerto reviews at the Inkpot

Other classical music reviews by this or any other writer can be obtained from the InkVault by doing a key word search with the writer’s name.

312: 12.10.98

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