Transcendent, Harrowing Antifascist Shostakovich Concertos From Alina Ibragimova

by delarue

Just a couple of months ago, violinist Alina Ibragimova made the front page here with a performance of a rare, lush French Romantic sonata by Louis Vierne. That’s right – in addition to his iconic organ symphonies, Vierne wrote gorgeous music for strings. That choice of obscure masterpiece is typical for her. How does she approach Shostakovich’s much better-known Violin Concertos No.1 and No. 2? Click onto Spotify if you have about forty minutes to spare away from multitasking: this is music you can’t turn away from.

What’s most notable about this record, performed with the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, is that this is the first-ever recording to feature the blistering finale of the Concerto No. 1 as the composer originally wrote it. Legendary violinist David Oistrakh, premiering it in Russia in 1955, asked Shostakovich to give him a break and let the orchestra carry the twisted “burlesque” theme that opens the movement for the sake of a momentary breather before the fireworks begin again. The composer agreed to the change: it’s too bad he’s not here to hear Ibrigamova do justice to the original.

Getting there is a riveting, harrowing ride: Shostakovich’s empathy for his fellow citizens’ suffering under Stalin is as poignant as his caricaturish portrait of the regime is savage. In an era of seemingly daily assaults on our civil rights, this music could not be more relevant. Jurowski draws muted suspense from the low strings and a poignant moment from the bassoon as Ibragimova parses this distant nightmare scenario with a focused, cello-like midrange intensity and just the hint of a tremulous vibrato. Shostakovich wrote it in 1948 amid Stalin’s murderous assault on the Russian intelligentsia but kept it under wraps until seven years later; that choice may have saved his life.

The clarity of the sense of abandonment in the lament before starry harp enters the nightscape is absolutely shattering. The contrast between the chilly, close-harmonied, bronzed gleam of the orchestra and  Ibrigamova’s plaintive resonance as horror looms closer is just as chilling.

The bustle and whirl of the second movement here are just short of frantic, part savage parody of Soviet pageantry, part dance of death, Ibragimova’s violin whistling while the world implodes around her. The aching crescendo of the bittersweet third movement is visceral, her tight harmonies and astringent chords cutting through the smoke pulsing right behind her. Her echoing dynamics in the cruelly marching solo afterward are breathtaking, as is the gleefully ghoulish dance that wraps up this antifascist classic.

The 1967 Concerto No. 2 seems much like a reprise of its predecessor, through a glass, darkly. The ensemble open in the same brooding, otheworldly vein, Ibragimova channeling a plaintive insistence, the enemy always lurking at the door. Anxiety rises, spiced with a ruthlessly cynical quote or two from the 19th century, down to a slow, moody paraphrase of a country dance theme.

The second movement’s underlying pillowy gloom and the violin drifting high above make a sharp contrast. The goofy exchange between Ibragimova and a lone trombone as the third gets underway is priceless, setting the stage for more serious-minded jousting and eventually a bristling violin cadenza with more of a cynically cartoonish tinge than the ghastliness it echoes. Forget about Stalin for a minute: imagine the kind of hell that Brezhnev, or Krushchev, or Reagan could have unleashed if they’d had apparatchik Mike Bloomberg’s minions in charge of their “trace and track.”