Accompanied by the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra), the French cellist Gautier Capuçon performs Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Opus 107. Conductor: Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Alte Oper Frankfurt, June 11, 2015.
The work was composed in 1959 and like the 2nd Cello Concerto of Shostakovich, it was dedicated to dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, considered to be one of the greatest cellists ever to have lived, a friend of the Russian composer. It is widely considered to be one of the most difficult concerted works for cello.
The great cellist admired Shostakovich’s music very much, and he had on several occasions wanted to ask the composer for a concerto, but he consulted Dmitri’s wife at the time and she advised him not to ask him directly for one. Nevertheless Rostropovich was to get his concerto. He only found out that Shostakovich had written this new cello concerto after he (Rostropovich) had read the morning papers. Shostakovich met him later that day, showed him the score, and then asked him humbly if Rostropovich would accept his dedication.
“The major work in my immediate plans is a cello concerto,” Shostakovich had said to a friend 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.”
Rostropovich committed it to memory in four days and gave the premiere on October 4, 1959, with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in the Large Hall of the Leningrad Conservatory. The first recording was made in two days following the premiere by Rostropovich and the Moscow Philharmonic, under the baton of Aleksandr Gauk.
The concerto is scored for solo cello, two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets (each doubling B-flat and A), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), one horn, timpani, celesta, and strings.
The work has four movements in two sections, with movements two through four played without a pause:
- Allegretto The first movement starts with its famous cello theme, “allegro” on four notes, which sounds very superficially like the inverted “DSCH” theme (D-E-flat-C-B), over a mock-military accompaniment. These four notes are repeated obsessively throughout the movement and are transformed into a typically Russian-sounding theme. The whole first movement is very busy, the orchestration is of course very Shostakovichian, which means a very pronounced percussion section, frequent use of snare drum and timpani, shrieking woodwind, and a whole lot of other Shostakovich signatures.
- Moderato The second, third and fourth movements are played continuously. The second movement is initially elegiac in tone. The string section begins with a quiet theme that is never played by the solo cello. The horn answers and the solo cello begins a new theme. The orchestra plays it after and the first theme is played again. The cello plays its second theme, which progressively becomes more agitated, building to a climax in bar 148. This is immediately followed by the first theme played loudly. The solo cello plays the its first melody in artificial harmonics with answers by the celesta, which leads into the cadenza. The second movement is the only movement with no reference to the DSCH motive.
- Cadenza – Attacca The cadenza stands as a movement in itself. It begins by developing the material from the cello’s second theme of the second movement, twice broken by a series of slow pizzicato chords. After the second time this is repeated, the cello’s first theme of the second movement is played in an altered form. After the third time the chords are repeated, a continual accelerando passes through allegretto and allegro sections to a piu mosso section. These sections are frequented by the first DSCH motive. The piu mosso section features fast ascending and descending scales.
- Allegro con moto The final movement begins with an ascent to a high D. The oboe begins the main theme, which is based on the chromatic scale. The cello repeats it, and presents a new theme. The cellos of the orchestra repeat this, accompanied by the solo cello playing fast sixteenth notes. At bar 105, a distorted version of Suliko, a song favoured by Stalin and used by Shostakovich in Rayok, his satire on the Soviet system, is played. Then, the flutes play the first theme again. A new theme played in triple time is presented by the orchestra, which is repeated by the cello. Then, the orchestra repeats and alters the theme. The horn, bass instruments and solo cello follow. The bass instruments play a modified version of the theme, which is repeated by the solo cello after. The cello begins playing a new theme that uses exactly the same notes as the DSCH motif. The modified version that was just played by bass instruments is repeated by the solo cello, accompanied by oboes playing fragments of the new DSCH theme. The first theme of this movement is played by the string section after, followed by the new DSCH theme in the woodwinds. The DSCH theme of the first movement is played, answered by the cello. After the third time this is played, the horn plays the theme again in longer notes. Then, the cello plays a passage from the first movement, which is followed by the first theme of this movement played by the woodwinds. This is followed by the first theme of the first movement played by the cellos of the orchestra, accompanied by scales in the solo cello. Then, a modified form of the first theme of this movement is played in the cello. The concerto ends with seven timpani strokes.