SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 99; Violin Sonata, Op. 134 – Leila Josefowicz, violin/ John Novacek, piano/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Sakari Oramo – Warner Classics 2564 62997-2 [Distr. by Naxos], 67:22 ****:
The chiaroscuro cover photograph on this recording shows a determined—not quite grimly determined—Leila Josefowicz, posed with her violin against a stark, mostly black background. The lighting is such that dark shadow falls on her face and figure. The austerity is relieved only by a sort of half smile that flits across her lips and eyes. Turn the pages of the booklet, and you find that this photograph is a perfect metaphor for Josefowicz’s view of the Shostakovich works on this recording. She speaks of the First Violin Concerto as “relatively optimistic, concluding with a hard-won sense of victory. Of Shostakich’s late (1969) Violin Sonata, she says it “is consistently gloomy and morose. . . . Yet. . . . although the work is often achingly remorseful and cataclysmically violent, in the last movement there are moments of sacred tenderness, like a prayer gone awry.” Illuminating thoughts: even at its most mordent, Shostakovich’s music is never thoroughly hopeless in its gloom. It is music of a survivor, and survival is its own reward. And sometimes punishment.
The First Violin Concerto was written about the time that Shostakovich came under the interdiction of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1948. Understandably, the concerto had to wait till after Stalin’s death—and then some—for its debut, in 1955. Like a number of Shostakovich’s works, it has a bipolar sort of personality. The first movement, Nocturne, has a brooding, saturnine quality that returns in the Passacaglia third movement. Unexpectedly, the sober passacaglia theme is introduced in the Scherzo second movement, a manic dance of death, with rasping double- and triple-stops and zinging glissandi for the solo violin, sardonic asides from chortling woodwinds and mocking percussion. The crazed energy of the Scherzo returns in the Burlesque finale. Here, we may sense the tears of a clown (to quote Smokey Robinson, which I don’t do with any regularity), but the grotesque humor of the movement injects that ironic thread of optimism that Leila Josefowicz reads into the score.
Her performance before a live audience is remarkable. The fearsome challenges of the work don’t daunt her; what’s more, she manages the wide tonal palette of the piece with nigh-impeccable intonation, from the rich vibrant strains of the slow music to the screeching exclamations of the Scherzo and Burlesque. Josefowicz doesn’t produce the heftier tones that, say, Oistrahk (Sony) and Vengerov (Teldec) bring to their recordings of the work. Her sound is lighter, brighter, emphasizing the high end of the musical spectrum, which helps to underscore the frenzy in the faster music.
The performance of the Violin Sonata is thoughtful, which makes sense in this more ruminative music. It has its moments of frenetic activity as well, in the Allegretto second movement and the Andante finale—another passacaglia—but they are more subdued, circumscribed. If, as pianist John Novacek says, this work is about death, then Shostakovich’s “long preoccupation with death has become a preoccupation with the appalling mundaneness of death.” And there is a quiet sense of acceptance here that seems to express the lonely triumph of the survivor. Again, Josefowicz’s playing in the more frenzied passages seems spikier than you’ll hear in some performances, but I’m not sure this isn’t exactly right for Shostakovich’s troubled music.
Both recordings are very good, the studio recording of the sonata clean and present, the live recording of the concerto detailed despite the apparently close micing of the soloist. The orchestra receives panoramic treatment, each section given its due, including those memorably grotesque interjections by tambourine and xylophone. Only the timpani have a weird kind of echo around them, as if they were recorded in a different acoustic. Small matter, though. This is a disc that explores realms of light and shadow in performances that are never less than magisterial.