SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Concerto No. 1. BRITTEN: Cello Symphony, op. 68.
Johannes Moser (cello), WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Pietari Inkinen.
Hänssler Classic CD 98.643 TT: 62:24.

Dark vaudeville. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich connects these two works, both written for him -- the Shostakovich in the late Fifties, the Britten in the early Sixties. Rostropovich became a star still in his teens. When he began, he taught students older than him. Prokofieff decided to write his Sinfonia Concertante for him and asked that Rostropovich write the cadenza. At the time, the cellist was at least as interested in chasing girls as in music and kept procrastinating until Prokofieff blew up at the delay. By the time Shostakovich went to work on his concerto, Rostropovich had acquired some discipline. I don't know whether he ever gave up chasing women.

Stalin's death did not lead right away to an easing of artistic restrictions. Shostakovich still had to keep some scores in his desk drawer, write Party bonbons (many of which are quite wonderful), and deliberately misrepresent the nature of his new major works in his public statements. In general, he insisted on the joviality and optimism of his music as it became even more bleak. One senses an acid in the late scores, occasionally alleviated (as in the finale to the Symphony No. 13) by a fragile lyricism. The Cello Concerto No. 1 is one of the earliest of his works to illustrate this. Incidentally, Rostropovich inspired Shostakovich to no less than three masterpieces: two cello concertos and a cello sonata. After the relative richness of the Symphonies 10 through 12, the stripped-down, chamber-like scoring of the concerto and the sparse use of strings in favor of brass and winds probably slapped the faces of its first audiences. Even today, a listener feels its sting. In three or four movements, depending on whether you count the lengthy cadenza, the concerto emphasizes angry sarcasm and deep lament. The first movement, a masterful allegro, begins with the cello announcing an isomer of Shostakovich's musical "signature" (D-S-C-H, or D-E flat-C-B) -- in this case, G-A flat-F flat-E flat. The pitch-content differs, but Shostakovich keeps the rhythm and the "feel" of the intervals between the notes. The second movement, marked "moderato" but really an adagio, stands close to Russian folk music the way Vaughan Williams's rhapsodies often do to English folk song. It breaks your heart and is, in an Elgarian way, the "soul" of both the concerto and of the cello itself. This leads directly to a long solo cadenza, which riffs on the concerto themes so far. Unlike so many of these things, it coheres very tightly, causing me to regret that Shostakovich never wrote an extended work for solo cello. We go from second-movement ideas to first-movement ones, with the solo cello finally insisting on the "signature" variant. The cello becomes increasingly agitated on this theme, winds up, and finally leaps into the finale, kicked off by four wrenching chords. We find ourselves in the midst of a wild peasant dance, a Breughel-like update of something like the finale to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. After shrieks from the strings, the "signature" returns and plays out to the final bars.

Britten wrote a number of works for Rostropovich in addition to the Cello Symphony: a sonata and three solo suites. Almost every one of them has entered the cello repertory. Even having heard it from such mavens as Ma, Wallfisch, Lloyd-Webber, Isserlis, and Rostropovich himself, I admit very little affection for the Cello Symphony. What I'd call "compositional nifties" abound in its pages, but overall it seems cramped and congested to me, as well as quite forgettable. If I had a score, I would certainly glean more from the music, but should a listener have to own a score? After all, I have no such difficulty with most other late Britten. On the other hand, better musical minds than mine disagree with me.

The work has three or four movements, again depending on what you count. The first, a maestoso rethinking of a French overture, turns into a sonata movement. The second (my favorite; I'd exempt it from the general criticism above) darts and buzzes like an angry hornet. It also runs the shortest by far of all the movements. The finale begins with an extended adagio that turns into a passacaglia, one of Britten's favorite forms. Much of the time, the orchestra buries the cello, as does Britten's emphasis on the lower end of the orchestra. A lot of it reminds me of mud and, especially compared to the sharp clarity of the Shostakovich, a miscalculation.

Moser and Inkinen deliver a powerhouse Shostakovich and an intense Britten. However, Rostropovich, the dedicatee, made classic recordings of both works -- the first with Rozhdestvensky, the second with Britten. Moser's performance competes well with anybody other than You Know Who, and the sound is, to my poor ears, fabulous. However, for me, the difference between Slava and everybody else is prime vs. choice.

S.G.S. (June 2012)