Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International
July 2020

There is no shortage of fine recordings of these concertos, even paired as here, with the Concerto No 1 the more popular of the two, having received many memorable accounts. Nonetheless, this new one from Alina Ibragimova and the Russian orchestra under the spirited direction of Vladimir Jurowski is special for two reasons. First, it is the premiere recording of the first concerto’s original score, which means that only the violin soloist introduces the finale rather than the orchestra. According to Robert Matthew-Walker’s extensive notes in the disc’s booklet, Shostakovich changed the opening passage of the movement at the request of violinist David Oistrakh, who premiered the work, to allow him to rest after the long cadenza joining the third movement to the finale without a break. The change may seem minor because it lasts only several seconds, but it is noticeable. While it is apparently what the composer originally wanted, I still prefer the sound of the orchestra there with its winds and xylophone part probably because that is what I am used to hearing but also because it makes a more interesting transition to the rest of the finale.

The second reason to rejoice, and for me the more important one, is the scintillating, no holds barred performances of both concertos by a Russian violinist, Russian conductor, and Russian orchestra. There have been few such recordings I think in recent times and this one comes up trumps on all counts. My go-to recordings of these works in modern sound have continued to be those of Maxim Vengerov with Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony now on Apex. I also have a special spot for the more recent Christian Tetzlaff accounts with the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgårds (Ondine) with their European, classical approach and stunning sound. That being said, these new performances are likewise spectacularly played and recorded. The sound has tremendous presence and one can easily hear all the wonderful details in the orchestration. The balance with the violin slightly forward seems very natural to these ears and, overall, this recording gives the Vengerov a run for its money.

As is generally known, the Violin Concerto No 1, although composed in the late 1940s, did not receive its premiere until 1955 after Stalin’s death. Stalin’s cultural henchman Andrei Zhdanov saw to it that every noted Soviet composer was humiliated for their ‘mistakes’ of the past. Shostakovich thought better of getting the work performed then, having stark memories of what he had endured in the 1930s. When Oistrakh premiered the concerto it had a new opus number, 99, to suggest it was composed at that time. The earlier opus number has since been restored to reflect the work’s correct place in Shostakovich’s oeuvre.

The concerto is in four movements and, with its large orchestra, including harp, celesta, and multiple winds, is symphonic. The movements are titled Nocturne, Scherzo, Passacaglia, and Burlesque, respectively. This is not to suggest any lack of virtuosity on the violin soloist’s part. Indeed, the concerto provides an enormous challenge to the soloist who plays throughout and has that very extensive cadenza connecting the third and fourth movements. Ibragimova mounts these challenges with aplomb, nothing fazing her. She can fine her tone down to the barest thread of pianissimo and then produce a big, intense sound as the music requires. Jurowski and the Russian orchestra are more than equal partners, exposing all of Shostakovich’s colourful orchestration with clarity. This is as true for the brooding darkness of the Nocturne and Passacaglia as it is for the brilliance of the Scherzo and finale.

The Violin Concerto No 2 has some similarities with its predecessor, both works beginning with a movement marked Moderato and containing much music of a dark, brooding character. However, there are many more differences than similarities between the two works. After the ‘Thaw’, Soviet artists were granted more freedom to create than they had during the Stalin era and Shostakovich took advantage of that. At the same time, his health was in decline and so both factors influenced his second violin concerto. The concerto was a very personal statement with a more withdrawn character than the more public one of the earlier work. It was composed for Oistrakh like that of its predecessor.

For the second concerto Shostakovich employed a smaller orchestra with single or double winds, four horns, timpani, tom-tom drum and strings. It is notable that he did not score any trumpets or trombones for either work, but he included a tuba in the earlier concerto. Whereas the first concerto is in four movements, this one is in the more traditional three. Instead of a second movement Scherzo, the first movement of the second concerto has a faster section that reminds one a bit of the first concerto’s second movement. Throughout the concerto the first horn has a major role with memorable solos, the one near the end of the second movement creating a needed ray of sunshine. Horns are also featured elsewhere as are the woodwinds, and in the finale the timpani and tom-tom volleys especially make an impact. Opposed to the first concerto, this one has three cadenzas—one in each movement—with the longest near the end of the finale. Ibragimova and the orchestra turn in a thrilling performance of the work with special mention due to the horn soloist, Valery Zhavoronkov whose big tone with some vibrato is in the Russian horn tradition and quite distinct from his counterparts in Vengerov’s and Tetzlaff’s accounts.

In every way, these accounts of two great Shostakovich concertos share in supplying a new library choice with those of Oistrakh and Vengerov. They are indeed a cause for celebration. Hyperion contributes its customary classy product with an attractive booklet cover, the 1910 painting ‘The Black Women’ by Marianne von Werefkin, excellent notes in English, French, and German, and a listing of the orchestra members.