In this impressive Philadelphia Orchestra debut performance, gifted young cellist Alisa Weilerstein gives an outstanding and deeply emotional rendition of this concerto, written for Rostropovich, who premiered the piece and was later the first to record it with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.
Recorded live November 24, 2006, Verizon Hall, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Shostakovich numbered among his friends the leading musical performers of the Soviet Union—Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, the Oistrakhs, Galina Vishnevskaya, Mstislav Rostropovich. Many of his major works were created in collaboration with them, and in these compositions he responded directly to the artistry of each performer, imbuing the solo parts with a distinctive character that was, in part, a reflection of various aspects not only of their specific faculties and strengths, but also of his friendship with each. Nevertheless they were also works that have, in the interim, proven to be durable in the hands of other soloists. Perhaps this is the ultimate test of a “classic”—whether a piece holds up to an infinite variety of interpretations from artists all over the world, over a long period of time. Composed for Rostropovich Shostakovich created both of his cello concertos for Rostropovich, the peerless Russian cellist with the big, vibrant tone who continued to champion the cause of the composer’s music—and of these concertos—long after his death in 1975. These works have proven to be some of the most fascinating concertos written in the 20th century. “The major work in my immediate plans is a cello concerto,” Shostakovich had said to a correspondent for Sovetskaya Kultura in the spring of 1959, when the First Concerto was still in embryonic form. “Its first movement, an Allegretto in the nature of a scherzo-like march, is ready. I think the Concerto will have three movements, but I am at a loss to say anything definite about its content. … It often happens that in the process of writing a piece, the form, expressive media, and even the genre of a work undergo a marked change.” His early reluctance to predict the form proved justified, for in the end the Concerto assumed a unique shape indeed. Taking as its inspiration the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra of Prokofiev (another work written for Rostropovich), as well his own Violin Concerto of a few years before, the Cello Concerto is cast in four movements, the third of which is a long cadenza that creates a gradual but inexorable acceleration toward the final Allegro con moto. “I was greatly attracted by Prokofiev’s work,” the composer wrote, “and decided to try my hand in the genre.” Despite this, the end result was something altogether different from the work’s model. Completed in mid-1959, the First Cello Concerto quickly became well-known both in the Soviet Union and in the West. Its unique formal aspects were immediately recognized, as was its relationship to the First Violin Concerto. “The Cello Concerto seems to continue the line of Shostakovich’s recent Violin Concerto,” wrote the conductor Kirill Kondrashin in the Moscow News after the work’s premiere in October 1959. “They have much in common: originality of form (particularly in regard to the position and function of the cadenza, which develops and continues the idea of the preceding movements of the Concerto), and the colorful music of the finales, which seem to picture the passionate gaiety of folk festivals, and the concentrated lyricism of the slow movements. … But while the Violin Concerto gives the impression of being a personal reflection of the artist himself, the concerto for cello appears to me to be an active struggle for the ultimate triumph of his idea.” One month after the Concerto’s successful premiere in Leningrad in October 1959, Rostropovich performed the United States premiere in the Academy of Music, with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. It was one in a long succession of first performances by the Orchestra of Shostakovich’s major compositions—which has also included United States premieres of no fewer than seven of the 15 symphonies and that of the First Piano Concerto as well. The opening performance of the Cello Concerto, on November 6, 1959, was one of the most significant and most heavily publicized American musical events of the Cold-War period. In attendance was an impressive array of Russian and American composers: Shostakovich, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Tikhon Khrennikov, Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Paul Creston. Rostropovich and the Orchestra recorded the work at that time—the first time in history that a Soviet composer had supervised a commercial taping of one of his own works in the U.S. A Closer Look Shostakovich’s music can now be seen, in retrospect, as standing squarely in the center of Western tradition. His use of symmetrical musical “mottos” takes its inspiration partly from the Baroque period, and partly from later composers such as Schumann. The best known of these mottos in Shostakovich’s music is the famous D-Es-C-H motif (D. SCHostakovich, derived from the German spelling of the pitches D, E-flat, C, B) found in a number of his works—a sort of musical anagram of his own name. The First Cello Concerto employs a similar four-note motto, G, F-flat, C-flat, B-flat, which although it seems to function completely outside the key of E-flat nevertheless forms the primary building-block of the first movement’s relentless motivic development. The opening Allegretto is one of Shostakovich’s most inspired creations, one that exploits not only the penetrating instrumental color of the accompanying woodwinds (with no brass) but also the “collaborative” solo parts for clarinet and horn—which is perhaps a reflection of the work’s debt to Prokofiev. The soloist then presents the tough, lean first theme; thereafter the cellist is hardly allowed a moment’s rest throughout the movement. The second, third, and fourth movements are played without pause. The initial Moderato slows the pace to allow the soloist and the solo horn to sing a lyrical melody, to a light accompaniment of strings and winds. The Cadenza movement (also Moderato) gradually works its way into the spirit of the fourth movement (Allegro con moto), thus forming a sort of bridge between widely divergent moods. It is followed directly by a dynamic perpetuum mobile of great energy and drive, in which the first movement’s main theme recurs. —Paul J. Horsley Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.