Skip to main content

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)

Shostakovich

Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, Op. 107
I. Allegretto
II. Moderato
III. Cadenza
IV. Allegro con moto

Written in 1959, this concerto is written for and dedicated to the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It appeared just two years after the second piano concerto, with which it shares some points of style and orchestration - quite bare but barbed, and with prominent parts for the woodwind. But the mood is very different: this concerto is serious, single minded and intense. There is a prominent part for a solo French Horn.

The principal theme of the first movement is stated at once by the cello, and it dominates the whole concerto. There are several other themes in this movement as well, most quite short and easily recognised. Two are played together, towards the end of the movement, in an extended duet for the cello and solo horn. The movement ends with a flourish.

The slow second movement starts gently, almost romantically, though the chromatic harmony gives a searching, not comforting feel to the tune. It works up to an expressive climax, which subsides into a passage of high cello harmonics, very barely accompanied by strings and celeste. This leads directly into the cadenza, in which the cello ruminates sadly on themes from the slow movement. This gradually becomes more animated, even passionate, and leads directly into the finale. This movement, full of real energy, displays the soloist's agility and virtuosity throughout. Do not be surprised to hear the theme from the first movement make its reappearance towards the end!

Festive Overture, Op. 96

Written in 1954, the Festive Overture is one of Shostakovich's few really exuberant works, not tinged by the sense of strain and the forced jollity that gives so many of Shostakovich's later works their poignancy. 1954 was the year after Stalin died; did the composer feel that, at last, he could really celebrate without the need to always look over his shoulder? After a ceremonial opening, which returns briefly at the end, the overture is relentlessly fast and exciting.

Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102
I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Allegro

Among the huge orchestral and chamber output of Dmitri Shostakovich (the 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, operas, cantatas, etc.) it is quite surprising to find only two each of piano concertos, violin concertos and cello concertos - and no others. The violin and cello concertos were both written for particular soloists and friends - the violin concertos for David Oistrakh, and the cello concertos for Rostropovich. And while the first piano concerto is an early work, youthful and exuberant, the other concertos were all post-war works, written between 1946 and 1968. The second piano concerto was written for his son, Maxim Shostakovich, who gave the first performance on his 19th birthday on 10th May, 1957 in Moscow. Like the first concerto of 20 years earlier it is quite light hearted and witty, though not as boisterously so as the earlier work.

The first movement opens with a sprightly bassoon tune, followed by the soloist's entry with an equally perky tune. (Any relation to an English sea shanty tune is purely coincidental!) The movement bowls along very naturally and merrily, with much fine woodwind writing, and the soloist often exploiting the extremes of the keyboard, leaving the orchestra to fill the gap in the middle. The ending is almost abrupt.

The second movement is one of the most lovely Shostakovich ever wrote, haunted by the ghost of Rachmaninov once or twice. The horror that underlies so many of his symphonic adagios seems to be absent for once. It leads without a break ...

... into the finale, with its infectious high spirits. Listen out for the passages in 7/8 time, very unusual, but integrated so seamlessly they are almost unnoticed.

Tahiti Trot, Op. 16 ("Tea for Two")

Tea for Two comes from the Vincent Youmans musical No No Nanette. The show was first performed in 1924 in Detroit, then it transferred to Chicago, where it ran with great success.

At this time - and for the first decade or so after the Russian revolution - the Soviet Union was wide open to western influences, including all the avant-garde arts movements. In this hot house of creativity, the young Dmitri Shostakovich had rapidly gained a brilliant reputation for his ability, and particularly for his sight-reading skills and musical memory. This ability was challenged when, in 1928, the conductor Malko made a bet with Shostakovich that he could not orchestrate Tea for Two in less than an hour. Shostakovich took up the challenge at once, and finished his arrangement, which he titled Tahiti Trot, in 40 minutes flat! It became a popular hit with dance bands, and the composer later included it in his ballet The Golden Age, where it was encored at almost every performance.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77(99)
I. Nocturne. Moderato
II. Scherzo. Allegro
III. Passacaglia. Andante
IV. Burlesque. Allegro con brio

Shostakovich and David Oistrakh first met in 1935, and they often played sonatas together in Moscow. Inspired by Oistrakh's artistry, Shostakovich started work on this concerto in 1947, and was writing the finale in February 1948 when .....

After World War 2, the 'cold war' period was the pretext for appalling repression inside the Soviet Union. Unlike the purges of the 1930s, which hit out at almost anybody, the post-war repression was aimed at the cultural and scientific intelligentsia. Stalin's henchmen began with literature in 1946, moved on to cinema and the theatre, and launched into music in February 1948, with a famous decree, lashing out at corrupt "formalist tendencies" in music. Shostakovich was sacked from his teaching posts, and obliged to write music for Stalinist propaganda films in order to survive. Understandably panic stricken, and despite completing the concerto, Shostakovich knew it had no chance of a public performance, and filed it in his desk drawer. The work was eventually first performed by David Oistrakh in 1955, two years after Stalin's death.

This is a symphonic concerto on the grand scale, lasting over thirty minutes, with a progressive four movement plan. The orchestra has no heavy brass, but major parts for woodwind and percussion.

The first movement is quite long, brooding and mysterious. The opening lyrical but lugubrious theme on lower strings lasts only four bars before the solo violin enters. There is no major climax at all in this movement, and a sad fade-out at the end.

The scherzo, by contrast, is quite manic - loud, hard and brittle in a fast 3/8 time. Yet there is no joy in this energy, rather a feeling of energy expending itself blindly. The contrasting central section, in a swaggering 2/4 tempo, brings in the percussion. The coda, even faster again, whirls the movement to a high energy close.

The passacaglia is noble and expressive, and at last real beauty makes an appearance in the work. As this subsides, a long solo cadenza emerges, which in turn leads directly into the vigorous finale. This combines the beauty of the passacaglia with the energy from the scherzo, to create music with a positive, affirmative message. The music is in a dance style (with a hint of the finale of Tchaikovsky's concerto about it). Towards the end the passacaglia theme returns on the horn which, taken up by the soloist, dominates a hectic and brilliant coda.

Back to programme notes index