Riveting performances of Shostakovich’s two cello concertos.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Concertos 1 & 2 – Alisa Weilerstein, c. – Sym. Orch. of Bavarian Radio/ Pablo Heras-Casado – Decca 483.0835, 60:52 *****:

Shostakovich (1906-75) was Russian (with all the emotional connotations that nationality evokes), yet his music is often classical in structure and tonal. Beleaguered by totalitarian political forces during his lifetime, he was forced to write music that fulfilled the Communistic objective of Soviet realism. This meant that he couldn’t write music for public consumption with much of a whiff of modernism. But by 1958 the Centralist Committee of the Communist party had reversed its 1948 condemnation of Shostakovich. Yet, the memory of persecution remained.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein played the Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto (1959) for Mstislav Rostropovich when she was 22 years old. He asked her “to convey intense emotion that somehow has to be concealed at the same time.” In this performance, she comments that “The emotion is never obvious: he’s [Shostakovich] agonizing, tortured inside, but presents a poker face.” But Weilerstein is noted for being a passionate and emotional cellist. Her performance may start out emotionally muted, but as the first movement progresses, the excitement increases.

The initial theme sung by the cello appears throughout the work becomes powerful and memorable. She renders the sad beginning of the second movement soulfully, then ends in a cloak of eerie desolation. A lengthy cadenza—a rondo separated by pizzicatos, ensues. This movement of still darkness gives way to shrieking woodwinds echoed by horns that begins the final movement. Here Weilerstein lets loose with a manic explosion that makes the ending exhilarating.

The Second Cello Concerto (1966) is from the profound, often sad late period of Shostakovich’s music. It starts with a seven minute dark, slow dirge—profoundly beautiful— interrupted by mocking percussion (xylophone). Flutes and cello comment, followed by several sharp booms by a drum; it ends quietly. Rostropovich premiered it on September 25, 1966 with Shostakovich in the audience. The recorded premiere (on a 1997 EMI set called “The Russian Years 1950-1974”) with Rostropovich as the soloist, occurred only four months after Shostakovich suffered a heart attack. It’s a much darker interpretation than Weilerstein.

The second movement is based on a theme from an Odessa street song, Bubliki, kupitye, bubliki (‘Come and buy my bagels”). Rostropovich commented, “one can hear piercing pain with an intensity that is almost Mahlerian.” His recording is just that, but Weilerstein emphasizes the passion rather than the pain. A sardonic fanfare (it would fit in the movie Ben Hur) begins the finale, followed by a hissing tambourine. Lyrical, dance and march-like segments follow. Snare drum riffs, trumpet voluntaries, whips cracks and a twisted restatement of the Odessa theme lead to a quiet ending (cello and woodblock and celesta), much like conclusion of the 15th Symphony of Shostakovich.

The variety of moods and the composer’s brilliant orchestration make this a very powerful work. Weilerstein’s passion and sensitivity make this a recording to savor. The recording balance captures the interplay between cello and orchestra with rich clarity. There’s a bleak authenticity and sardonic humor to Rostropovich’s premiere that makes it unique. But Weilerstein and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado have set a modern standard for these masterpieces.

—Robert Moon