A Hauntingly Reflective New Recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concertos
Halloween month wouldn’t be complete around here without at least one album of music by the king of subversive Soviet Russian protest-classical sounds, Dmitri Shostakovich. One especially vivid and timely new record is cellist Alban Gerhardt’s performance of the composer’s two cello concertos with the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Peka Saraste, streaming at Spotify.
There’s equal parts sadness and venom in the first one, which the composer wrote in a particularly imperiled moment in 1959. The cynical dance of death that follows the first movement’s Bartokian intro is briskly and efficiently executed, both soloist and orchestra resisting any possible urges to take it into grand guignol territory – a effective strategy for consistency’s sake, as the music grows more allusive.
By comparison to the iconic Mstislav Rostopovich’s original interpretation, the second movement here seems on the slow side – Gerhardt first goes for lingering, elegaic sustain, with liberal vibrato, in the somber waltz and variations at the beginning, then exercises considerable restraint as Saraste gets the orchestra to really dig in with a fierce, aching angst. Shostakovich wrote a lot of wrenchingly sad music and this is among his finest moments in that vein.
Gerhardt’s approach is the same in the spare, ghostly solo passages of the third movement, at least until the fanged flurries of the coda. The savage, macabre parody of the folk song in the final movement gives everybody a chance to cut loose even more, whether twirling fiendishly or marching perversely toward the sudden and unexpected ending.
Shostakovich wrote his second Cello Concerto in 1966 as a requiem for poet Anna Akhmatova: Rostopovich is cited in the liner notes as as calling this piece his alltime favorite among the many works composers had written for him. Reflective lushness gives way to momentary, utterly surreal brassiness from the low strings, then a return to wistfulness in the opening movement as the composer quotes deviously from his back catalog (and Tschaikovsky too). It’s only at this point where Gerhardt really gets to take centerstage, again with a brooding understatement.
Goofiness in Shostakovich is usually witheringly sarcastic; orchestra and soloist keep their cards close to the vest in the second movement’s initial cartoonish exchanges without a hint at the bluster and intensity they bring to the Black Sea dance that introduces the finale. That’s where Gerhardt gets to call bullshit on a phony fanfare, and relishes it. The starry interlude with the twin harps and cello is sublime, as are Gerhardt’s jagged quasi-chromatics over punchy basses a little afterward. Both the phantasmagoria and ache of the cello grow to harrowingly lofty proportions from there. What a treat to see this iconic material played with such a high level of attention and craft.