SHOSTAKOVICH:  Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77 (Philharmonia Orch/ Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cond) (rec. Sept. 7, 1962).  Violin Concerto No. 2 in C# Minor, Op. 129 (USSR State Symphony Orch/Evgeny Svetlanov, cond) (rec. Aug. 22, 1968).  YSAYE:  AmitiČ, Op. 26 (Poem No. 6 for 2 Violins and Orchestra) (with Igor Oistrakh/London Philharmonic Orch/Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond) (rec. Feb. 26, 1961).

BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4060 (F) (S) (ADD) TT:  78:18

There have been plenty of versions of the First Concerto—composed in 1947-48 but withheld until 1955 for political reasons—since Oistrakh's debut recording in 1956 (with Mitropoulos conducting the New York Phil, now on Sony Masterworks Heritage, plus the First Cello Concerto with Rostropovich, and Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959). Coupled with the Second Violin Concerto (as it is here on BBC Legends), "King David" recorded it with Yevgeni Mravinsky conducting the Czech Phil (available on the Prague label if you can find it), while a second version of No. 2 (from a 1967 concert with the Moscow Phil under Kirill Kondrashin) is coupled on Icone 9408 with Kondrashin's Symphony No. 15 from the same concert.

So much for stats on Oistrakh, for whom both works were written, but whose former colleague, the obnoxious Rostropovich, denounced him posthumously for "letting [the First Concerto] lie around waiting for its first performance." Why did he "despise" Oistrakh? Was it because Shostakovich composed his first string concerto for King David rather than Slava (who waited until 1959 for his First)? As a Jew Oistrakh was doubly vulnerable under the Stalin/Zhdanov regime, which denounced Shostakovich in 1948 for "formalism" (along with Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and others)—not that either of them was safe, especially since the First Violin Concerto is one of the late-middle period works that incorporate Jewish themes.

In any case No. 1 is a somber work in five movements—the fourth one a long unaccompanied cadenza. A sardonic, nervy Scherzo follows the lengthy inaugural Nocturne with its 70-bar cantilation for the soloist; then comes a Passacaglia slow movement and, after the cadenza movement, a sinister "Burlesca" without tongue-in-cheek. The Second Violin Concerto didn't follow until 1967, a year after the second one for Rostropovich's long-pegged cello. In three movements, it is music of extraordinary bitterness, often verging on despair, followed two years later by the death-obsessed song cycle Shostakovich called Symphony No. 14.

In Concerto No. 1, Rozhdestvensky's conducting lacks the high-strung tension of Mitropoulos or Mravinsky but is otherwise long on commitment and finely integrated. The Philharmonia Orchestra had not yet gone into its steep decline, and the 1962 sound from Edinburgh's Usher Hall recreates the enveloping acoustic of that Victorian temple to Art and Comfort. The Second Concerto, from London's vast Royal Albert Hall in 1968, was accompanied by the unpredictable Svetlanov, who proved on that occasion he could be measurably more musicianly than the bluff musical bully heard over the years in recordings without soloist. The USSR State Symphony Orchestra was Moscow's pre-Perestroika best, with expert solo playing à la Russe.

If you have Oistrakh's recording of No.1 on Sony, or both concertos on Prague, this is a commendable "added attraction," packaged with care. If you're new to the music, it features King David in peak form in both works. The appended Ysaye doodle-dawdle—AmitiČ, a.k.a. Poem No. 6 for Two Violins and Orchestra—is second-hand Franck-d'Indy laced with pseudo-Debussy and quasi-Chausson. The Oistrakhs, father and son, play it as if it were significant, but the connected halves, slow and quick, remain tapioca afloat in a watery vanilla sauce.

R.D.(Feb. 2001)