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Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – Shostakovich & Martinu cello concertos

By (July 7, 2017) 3 Comments

Shostakovich, Martinu: Second cello concertos

**** (4 of 5)

The second concerto for cello by Dmitri Shostakovich is the least ingratiating of the six he wrote, two for each major instrument. Opening with a gloomy, growling monologue, the solo part is matched in misery by the orchestra. The concerto was written in 1966 and first performed by Mstislav Rostropovich at a Moscow concert to mark the composer’s 60th birthday. Knowing that public pessimism was an offence in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich held nothing back.

The four-minute middle movement is friskier, though no less morbid than the opening Largo. Only in the finale does the composer express some relief and gratitude that he (and we) are still alive.

The premiere recording by Rostropovich is deeply unsettling, almost ugly at times in its private mutterings. Christian Poltera’s new account here is more lyrical, confident, uplifting. I am starting to like the concerto for the first time.

Bohuslav Martinu wrote his second cello concerto at the end of the Second World War and did not live to hear it performed. Top cellists had too many new concertos to choose from and Martinu gave up on it after not hearing back from Gregor Piatigorsky. The premiere took place in 1965, almost contemporaneous with Shostakovich’s second, and to a muted reception. The Czech composer had died six years earlier in Swiss exile.

As ever with Martinu, he starts with a good tune and whiles away the next half-hour playing rhythmic and variation games in the most agreeable manner. Upbeat where Shostakovich is down, this makes a perfect companion piece. The DSO Berlin give symbiotic support under Gilbert Varga’s baton and the sound is exemplary. If you are cello curious, this release should be irresistible. (If you’re a violist, you’ll be jealous.)

Norman Lebrecht has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc, writes a monthly essay for Standpoint magazine and is writing two more books.