Graham Rickson
July 2020

Shostakovich's epic Violin Concerto No 1 has definitely come in from the cold; recordings, at least Western ones, were hard to come by until Itzhak Perlman taped the work for EMI in the 1980s. Completed in 1948, the concerto should have been Shostakovich’s Op 77, but the Zhdanov Decree and 'cultural uncertainties' prompted him to keep it hidden from view, giving the opus number instead to the mysterious, still unperformed Three Pieces for Orchestra. Dedicatee David Oistrakh eventually gave the delayed first performance of what the composer described as 'a symphony for violin and orchestra' in 1955. Alina Ibragimova’s recording gives us the work as it was originally planned, the first statement of the finale’s theme played by the soloist instead of full orchestra—Oistrakh having asked Shostakovich to rescore the passage in order to allow him a breather after the long cadenza. It doesn’t actually make a huge difference, though the published version works better for me, the soloist’s first entry in the 'Burlesque' cheekier and more intrusive, like a late-arriving party guest. Ibragimova’s is a fabulous performance though, she and conductor Vladimir Jurowski whipping up hysteria in the work’s final seconds. Jurowski draws wonderfully dark, stark sonorities from his Moscow players: sample the great passacaglia’s opening and flinch, the basses and cellos really digging in. It’s one of the greatest movements in any 20th-century concerto, Ibragimova commanding and consoling by turns. Terrific.

The concerto’s successor, a premature 60th birthday gift for Oistrakh, is still a concert hall rarity. A shame—stick with it, and it’s a real grower, much as the Cello Concerto No 2’s charms take time to work their magic. Shorter and more lightly scored than No 1, it’s full of intriguing details—the brilliant writing for tom-tom stands out, and there’s a glorious, unexpectedly romantic horn solo near the end of the slow movement, beautifully played here. Ibragimova is superb in the last movement cadenza, the lopsided dash to the finishing line as chilling as it is funny (listen to what she does 7’25” in, seconds before the final bars). You’ll need a sit down afterwards. Brilliantly recorded, well-annotated and with good sleeve art—a must have.