Soloist: Valerie Welbanks

It is impossible to separate Shostakovich and his music from the Soviet environment which dominated his whole life. By the time he composed this concerto, he had already been on the rollercoaster of denunciation and rehabilitation several times. Brezhnev had replaced Khrushchev two years earlier, so the pendulum had again swung in the direction of Soviet conservatism and all that it implied. It would be an error though to see this concerto as a mirror image of the state of Soviet society – Shostakovich had moved beyond that and he was very clear that there was no narrative behind the score.
This concerto is an intensely emotional work by a composer in his late period, beginning to feel the weight of ill health and frailty. He suffered a heart attack a few weeks after completing the piece, heralding a physical decline that would beset his final decade.
Those of you who have never heard this concerto are in for a surprise. (It is the 1st that is the ‘popular’ one and most well known) Firstly, its considerable power is not generated through the virtuosic cello techniques we would expect in a concerto, although it is extremely difficult technically for the soloist. Secondly, the orchestration is surprisingly sparse but also unique. A piccolo and flute, (rather than 2 flutes) 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and a contra-bassoon make up the woodwinds. There are only 2 French horns – no trumpets, trombones or tuba. Percussion (notably xylophone, tambourine, snare and bass drum), timpani, harp and strings make up the rest of the orchestra.
The horns play a central role throughout and musicians often call this a concerto for cello, horns and orchestra. In the third movement they are especially prominent and are used in an original and almost overwhelming way. Pure, sustained energy would be a good way of describing it. The contrabassoon takes on the same role that the contra-basses do in the strings – providing an extra lower octave to the woodwinds. Both the basses and the contra-bassoon contribute to the dark and sometimes sombre colour of large sections of the concerto. The harp comments on the solo cello every so often.
One other singularity is the tempo marking which is set to 100 bpm throughout. Shostakovich makes things go faster (or slower) by changing the time signature and applying this speed to different note values, e.g. a crotchet beat in the 1st movement or a minim (double beat) in the 2nd movement or 6/8 in the last. Ingenious and a wonderful way of adding the unifying parameter of a constant and unchanging pulse to the whole concerto, across all the movements.
Although the concerto follows a standard three movement structure, it started off as a movement for a symphonic work ‘for cello and orchestra’. It would have been Shostakovich’s 14th symphony and indeed the 15th symphony has many features that show its ancestry.
The concerto as a whole feels like a continuous work. The first movement is a dark and intense affair. Slow music, with mostly low strings (celli and basses) accompanying the solo cello throughout. Solo horn and the harp appear too. The music builds inexorably, deliberately and slowly. Odd outbursts in the winds punctuate the music at crucial moments and the music slowly subsides and ends as it started – quiet and contemplative.
Overall one has the feeling that, despite its length, the whole movement is almost akin to a slow introduction to a symphonic 1st movement, as if the scene is being set for what is to follow in the 2nd and 3rd ones. The key to understanding this movement musically is to follow the cello line as it wakes from its slumber and begins to articulate the story it has to tell, with the orchestra supplying the colour and perhaps the odd comment here and there. The cello line is very expressive and passionate throughout the concerto but especially so in this first movement.
The outer movements, of more or less equal length, are connected via a much shorter second movement which functions as an interlude. This arc-like structure is the framework that supports the musical evolution of the work. The second movement itself is based on a Russian folk tune, introduced at the outset (after a short fanfare-like introduction) by the solo cello. Shostakovich explained in a conversation with his close friend Isaak Glikman that he had felt inexplicably drawn to a tune that was popular with Odessa’s street vendors – to the lyrics ‘Pretzels, buy my Pretzels!’.
The whole movement is quicker and more lively than the first; the xylophone, woodwinds, timpani and horns start to express themselves with that typical Shostakovich sound which is so instantly recognisable – e.g. winds all playing the same notes across many octaves with angular melodies and rhythms.
The second movement flows seamlessly into the third – this is the movement where the horns are let loose – and they rampage wildly for 32 bars, accompanied by a snare drum. This really is an extraordinary passage, unlike anything else in the orchestral repertoire. When they are spent, the solo cello takes over in an extended cadenza, with a tambourine exchanged for the snare. Amazingly inventive orchestration sustaining a powerful musical energy.
The movement then settles into a kind of theme and variations, together with many moments where bits of thematic material from the previous two are recalled, e.g. the horn episode from the beginning of the 3rd movement, the tune from the 2nd, cello figurations from the 1st, etc.
All these build to a huge final fanfare, at which point a lesser composer would perhaps have ended the piece – but the music falters and subsides, and the concerto ends as it started, with plaintive sighs from the cello. One last bit of magic orchestration appears as the percussion accompany the solo cello through to the end.
I don’t usually write programme notes which attempt to describe the music and what happens when – but with this piece, I felt I had no choice. The orchestration is so extraordinary throughout, and the scope, the breadth and the arc of the music is so unrelentingly confident that you are swept away, willingly or not, and landmarks seemed a necessity. No fireworks here, but 35 minutes of intense musical focus instead.
Notes: Richard Gonski 2023