Shostakovich Cello Concerto no. 1 in E-flat, op. 107

performed by Truls Mørk and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, or below with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy

(or in a preferred recording with Rostropovich and the London Symphony under Charles Groves)

This work is just… spectacular.

There’s something so powerful in this piece about the significance of the soloist. In Beethoven, we saw the cello as part of a rather nebulous solo/trio role. In Saint-Saëns, we saw the cello as a show-off fireworks soloist. With Dvorak, though, we began to see something more; as discussed, it’s almost a symphony with a cello as narrator, certainly a virtuosic, beautiful piece, but there’s the obvious feeling that it has an urgency to express a narrative. That’s the case also with the Elgar, but Shostakovich hits on something here, something that is more poignant and piercing than any of the others. There’s a sinister darkness about this work, a feeling that’s immediately unsettling, but at the same time kind of contagious, charismatic, that proceeds through a clear development, a musical story with content presented and recapitulated, a structure that’s at once crystal clear but gets progressively darker as the work’s genius narrative unfolds.

Wikipedia says of the work, and I copy directly:

“The work has four movements in two sections, with movements two through four played without a pause:

  1. Allegretto
  2. Moderato
  3. CadenzaAttacca
  4. Allegro con moto

A typical performance runs approximately 28 minutes in length.”

It also continues to mention that the composer wrote the work for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who memorized it in four days for the premiere on 4 October, 1959 under Mravinsky’s baton with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and that it’s “widely considered to be one of the most difficult concerted works for cello”, along with a work the composer said inspired him for this piece, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia-Concertante. Shostakovich’s concerto is notable for having only one horn, which acts as a sort of secondary solo instrument in the work at some pretty pivotal points.

If you haven’t had an exposure to or familiarity with the DSCH motif, it’s pretty central to this piece. The work begins with a version of it from the soloist, a figure a good friend of mine refers to, I think, as “disgusting.” I wouldn’t go so far, but it’s a bit eerie, unsettling. It’s the first thing we hear in the work, and is the cornerstone of the first movement, and really the whole piece, with this four-note figure morphing and taking different shapes as we listen. Listen for the horn calling out the same figure at different significant points. There are plaintive, poignant cries from woodwinds, thick, diseased sounding double or triple stops from the soloist. Everything comes together to make for a first movement that’s powerful, not in its triumph or beauty, but darkness, a sort of headstrong acceptance of the grotesque.

The second movement, in contrast to the powerful, commanding finish of the first movement, is mournful, a more standard expression of longing or pain. If the first movement was too ‘disgusting’ or made your skin crawl too much, then maybe the second movement is the place to let your ears warm up to the discomfort of this work. It’s like wandering through a forest in the black of night, with contrasting central passages of more refreshing beauty, a sigh of relief as the moon shines through the trees. This longest movement of the concerto reaches its own distressed climaxes before winding down into the softness and unsettling quiet that leads directly into the third movement.

It emerges from the quiet, more transparent ending of the second movement, and it’s here that we hear the most personal content of the work, the most passionate, the real heart of the piece. It is the cadenza. What we hear here is a perfect, powerful example of what a cadenza should be, although stretched to great extremes. The cadenza of a concerto should be (or is often) virtuosic, a showy passage for the soloist, obviously, but to me, a satisfying cadenza is also built or drawn from the material that has been or will be presented, and therefore serves to propel the piece forward, to continue the story. In this work, we’ve already had two intense movements, an unsettling but straightforward, angular, acerbic first movement, and the beautifully dark second, with a few rays of sunshine. But in this cadenza, it feels like we’ve dug down to the core of the piece, and the intense heat reaches a point that makes it feel as if we couldn’t bear to stay here any longer, and right then, the fourth and final movement begins.

The orchestra jumps back into the scene suddenly, with a sense of uneasy urgency. They back off enough to give the soloist enough space for more soloist acrobatics in this shortest movement of the piece. Listen for the timpani figures in this final movement. The sense of anxiety in this movement, at least for me, stems from the density of the music… or rather the density of the content. It all seems based on a very small palette of ideas that are repeated over and over again, with greater intensity and frenetic menace, like a crazed maniac driving full speed ahead toward the edge of a cliff. But even here, we can pretty easily identify all that content we heard in the very beginning of the piece, making the narrative of this work a tight, logical, and yet wild, crazy one.

While so much of Shostakovich’s music (and that of other composers, I think), uses the symphony as the means by which to make an argument, express an important public idea (as we have seen with his fifth, seventh, and ninth [need some even-numbered ones!]), it’s interesting, and somehow all the more powerful to give a face to the narrative in the form of a soloist. The struggle, the storyline, is then not told by the orchestra as a whole, but carried on the shoulders of this one performer, and that pressure, that intensity carries through to the audience. While the cadenza is virtuosic and busy at times, there are chilling moments of nothing but a few piercing, naked plucked chords that stand out among the landscape of the rest of the music, and as if we’ve reached some critical mass, the orchestra returns to usher in the final (and shortest) movement, as if there’s a ticking clock, an urgency to complete the story. All of it, in total, gives us an image of something passionate and yet terrifying, pleading and pained.

I’d like to make an argument here about ugly music… this is something I could have just as easily mentioned in the quintet article, but it’s a good cap to Shostakovich’s week of works.

There are lots of quotes that talk about how the purpose of music is beauty, or to comfort, or to please, and in many cases, for much of music’s history, that is the case. However, with the growth of the Romantic era, music came to be about more than just an expression of beauty. In addition to rejoicing and celebration and beauty, it expressed pain, longing, disappointment, anger, despair, and even rebellion and the grotesque. Those are equally valid human emotions. (For now, despite the fact that I feel a strong argument can be made for it, I’ll pass on discussing more ‘cerebral’ music, which I maintain has a beauty all its own).

In a time when it became more acceptable to express personal emotions through art (be it music or painting or theatre or prose), there were also great periods of tragedy and loss, dark spots in individual lives and in humanity itself, and we cannot expect music, as a reflection, an expression of life, not to convey those selfsame emotions, even to the point of being ugly.

We haven’t gotten to it yet, and I don’t want to get off topic, but take Prokofiev’s earliest piano sonatas, the first through the third, maybe, and compare them with the famous ‘war sonatas,’ numbers 6-8. In the very opening of the seventh, there’s an eruption of cacophony and dissonance, but when you know something of the background of the composer or the work, you understand that the piece is not about just being pretty or pleasant, but that it has something powerful and important to express.

That’s the same here. The first few (perhaps uncomfortable) listens will give you an overview of the piece, but upon stepping back and hearing its overall argument and construction, I think one cannot but recognize the raw power and painful beauty of a piece like this, and that is a testament to Shostakovich’s craft.

I think we might not be seeing him again for a while, which is a sad thing, but there’s plenty more to enjoy, not least of which is what follows this Cello & Symphony series on the blog, which you will soon learn more about in an upcoming article. Stay tuned and thank you.


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