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Cello Concerto No 2 in G major, Op 126

composer
1966; written for Mstislav Rostropovich

 
Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday in 1966 was marked by concerts across the Soviet Union. The day itself, 25 September, was crowned by a concert in Moscow which included the premiere of the composer’s Cello Concerto No 2 in G major, Op 126, written for and dedicated to the evening’s soloist, Mstislav Rostropovich. Like the first concerto, the new work was soon heard abroad, receiving its European premiere in London eleven days later.

By this time, Shostakovich’s international reputation was assured, but he was in failing health. A recent serious heart attack, followed by long convalescence in Crimea after extensive hospitalization, caused the lifelong cigarette smoker to curtail his activities significantly.

Although Shostakovich’s compositional capabilities were unimpaired, as the new concerto demonstrated—it was written in Yalta within a month—the rate of his output slowed as its emotional content deepened. He explained that the second concerto began as a memorial piece for the poetess Anna Akhmatova, who had died in March 1966, aged seventy-six, having been nominated for the Nobel Prize the year before. Shostakovich described her as ‘the queen of Russian poetry’.

The mood, therefore, of the concerto is essentially reflective, allied to remarkable passages of naive and direct expression. The soloist is partnered by a very large, not to say unique, orchestra: double woodwind and contrabassoon, two horns, timpani, large percussion section, at least sixty-four strings, and a minimum of two harps—the harps always in unison. Apart from the consistently distinctive sound of the orchestra, Shostakovich uses his forces sparingly; only in one or two passages, literally, does he call on his full forces, to astoundingly dramatic and expressive effect. Indeed, a listener, not knowing the composer’s full instrumentation, might well be forgiven for imagining that the work is scored for a chamber orchestra. Here, surely, is a convincing demonstration of Mahler’s influence on Shostakovich. However, the work (much more than the direct utterance of the first concerto) makes considerable technical and interpretative demands on soloist, conductor and (not least) orchestra.

The first movement opens in reflective vein. Throughout the concerto there is an overriding nostalgic element, a contemplation of things past, as in a reflective brown study. There are allusions to earlier works of the composer—not in the direct manner of, say, the eighth string quartet, but as half-remembered gestures from such as the fourth symphony, first cello concerto, the almost inevitable DSCH motif, and more importantly—unforgettably, in context—a street song from Odessa (Akhmatova’s birthplace): ‘Bubliki, kupitye, bubliki’ (‘Buy my bread rolls’), which begins the central allegretto.

Such images pass by, the emotion they engender rising at times to great passion—the thrilling horns’ fanfare ushering in the finale especially—before falling back, and, in that finale of syntheses, on five occasions revealing a repeated G major phrase as a kind of warm-hearted ‘bear-hug’ (Eric Roseberry’s phrase), before the music slowly falls to a continuous percussion tattoo against which the soloist holds a long low D, on which the final brief crescendo ends this astonishingly original masterpiece.

Judging by the composer’s surviving letters, the Second Cello Concerto was originally planned as a symphony, but became what Shostakovich wrote of as ‘the Fourteenth Symphony with a cello part’. Like Britten, Shostakovich was reluctant in the extreme to show others his incomplete scores, but did send a draft of the concerto to Rostropovich who has reported his delight that his own suggestions for the third movement cadenza were incorporated into the final score. Britten himself broke his own no-show taboo by showing Shostakovich his own sketches for his final opera, Death in Venice.

Struck low by a heart attack in May of 1966, just as celebrations to commemorate his 60th birthday were underway, it was unclear as to whether Shostakovich would be in good enough health to attend the premiere of the concerto on 25 September 1966. In the event, he was greeted with a rapturous ovation when, just two years after Britten’s Cello Symphony premiere in the same Moscow Conservatory hall, he took his seat to witness Rostropovich and the USSR Symphony Orchestra perform his Cello Concerto No 2 Op 126 under the baton of Evgeny Svetlanov. The concerto itself, completed in a sanatorium in Yalta, opens with an intimate, introspective Largo movement which, like Britten’s work, unveils no great Romantic hero battling against orchestral might. Indeed the exchange between the cello and the shuddering booms of the bass drum suggest quite the opposite. The remaining two movements are both marked Allegretto; a scherzo attempts to throw a little sardonic light on the brooding mood while the Finale is notable for its extended cadenza and the attenuating orchestra finally giving way to the cello’s final, resigned utterance.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2020

En 1966, le soixantième anniversaire de Chostakovitch fut marqué par des concerts dans toute l’Union soviétique. Le jour même de cet anniversaire, le 25 septembre, fut couronné par un concert à Moscou comprenant la création du Concerto pour violoncelle nº 2 en sol majeur, op.126, du compositeur, écrit pour le soliste de cette soirée, Mstislav Rostropovitch auquel il est dédié. Comme le premier concerto, cette nouvelle œuvre fut bientôt jouée à l’étranger et reçut sa première exécution européenne à Londres onze jours plus tard.

À cette époque, la réputation internationale de Chostakovitch était assurée, mais il était en mauvaise santé. Une récente crise cardiaque sérieuse, suivie d’une longue convalescence en Crimée après une importante hospitalisation, obligea le fumeur qu’il avait été toute sa vie durant à réduire sensiblement ses activités.

Même si ses capacités restaient intactes en matière de composition, comme le prouva le nouveau concerto—il l’écrivit à Yalta en un mois—le rythme de sa production ralentit et son contenu émotionnel augmenta. Il expliqua que le second concerto commença comme une œuvre à la mémoire de la poétesse Anna Akhmatova, décédée en mars 1966 à l’âge de soixante-seize ans, après avoir été nommée pour le Prix Nobel l’année précédente. Chostakovitch la décrivait comme «la reine de la poésie russe».

L’atmosphère de ce concerto est donc essentiellement pensive, mêlée à de remarquables passages d’une expression naïve et directe. Le soliste fait équipe avec un très grand, pour ne pas dire exceptionnel, orchestre: bois par deux et contrebasson, deux cors, timbales, grand pupitre de percussion, au moins soixante-quatre instruments à cordes et au moins deux harpes—les harpes toujours à l’unisson. En dehors du son toujours caractéristique de l’orchestre, Chostakovitch utilise ses effectifs de façon modérée; il ne fait appel à tout l’orchestre que dans un ou deux passages, pas davantage, avec un effet incroyablement dramatique et expressif. En fait, on pourrait pardonner à un auditeur, qui ignorerait que le compositeur l’a écrite pour un grand effectif, d’imaginer que cette œuvre s’adresse à un orchestre de chambre. Voici, à n’en point douter, une démonstration convaincante de l’influence de Mahler sur Chostakovitch. Toutefois, cette œuvre (bien plus que la formulation directe du premier concerto) impose des exigences techniques et d’interprétation considérables au soliste, au chef d’orchestre et (en particulier) à l’orchestre.

Le premier mouvement commence dans une veine pensive. Dans tout ce concerto, il y a un élément nostalgique primordial, une contemplation des choses du passé, une sorte de méditation pensive. On trouve des allusions à des œuvres antérieures du compositeur—pas de manière directe comme, par exemple, dans le Quatuor à cordes nº 8, mais comme des gestes à demi remémorés, notamment de la quatrième symphonie, du Concerto pour violoncelle nº 1, du motif DSCH presque inévitable, et plus important encore—inoubliable dans ce contexte—d’une chanson des rues d’Odessa (où était née Akhmatova): «Bubliki, kupitye, bubliki» («Achetez mes petits pains»), qui commence l’allegretto central.

De telles images défilent, l’émotion qu’elles engendrent s’élevant parfois à une grande passion—en particulier, la fanfare exaltante des cors introduisant le finale—avant de retomber et, dans ce finale de synthèses, en cinq occasions, révélant une phrase répétée en sol majeur comme une sorte d’«étreinte» (selon Eric Roseberry), avant que la musique disparaisse doucement, réduite à un roulement continu de percussion contre lequel le soliste tient un long ré grave, le bref crescendo final sur lequel s’achève cette pièce d’une originalité étonnante.

extrait des notes rédigées par Robert Matthew-Walker © 2020
Français: Marie-Stella Pâris

Recordings

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 2; Britten: Cello Symphony
Studio Master: SIGCD137Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Largo
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegretto –
Movement 3: Finale: Allegretto

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