If ever two
violin concertos belonged together, it's the Britten and the Shostakovich.
Though the two composers later became friends, there is no question of
cross-fertilization between the two works: the former written in 1940, the
latter in 1948, well before the two men first met (in 1956). Still, the
composers shared a sense of isolation and a tragic vision of history that one
can hear in their music. Shostakovich was an outsider in a repressive political
and social system that demanded mindless conformity. Britten was openly gay in a
society where homosexuality was still considered a criminal offense. He was also
a pacifist, which didn't exactly endear him to the wartime authorities. In
1940, Britten is helplessly witnessing a nightmare taking shape. In 1948,
Shostakovich is dealing with the aftermath of that nightmare, tolling the bell
for the millions who perished in his native country. It's hardly surprising
that both concertos resist the triumphalism of the Beethoven and Brahms
concertos as well as the virtuosic ebullience of those by Mendelssohn and
Tchaikovsky. These are deeply pessimistic works: inward, restive, and mournful.
After all these years, David Oistrakh's searingly intense performance of the Shostakovich remains definitive. The concerto was written for him; and his recording, made two days after the work's American premiere (with Mitropolous and the New York Philharmonic), has never been surpassed. This hasn't stopped many violinists from trying. For all its darkness, the concerto remains one of Shostakovich's most frequently recorded works, with 67 versions currently in the catalogue. The Britten has been less fortunate. Until recently it was probably the most neglected of his orchestral compositions. No one seemed to know what to do with it. Over the past ten years (and twenty recordings), James Ehnes has now established himself in the first rank of young violinists. He brings to both these concertos considerable technical resources and profound interpretive insights that take us deep inside the music. His Shostakovich might not be the equal of Oistrakh, but it is at least as good as anyone else's, and in the most vivid and transparent sound this concerto has ever received. His Britten might be even better. It is the most convincing and compelling performance of the work I've ever heard. He's able to shape the narrative with dramatic intensity and expressive power.
Based on Armenian folk dances, Aram Khachaturian's ever-popular Violin Concerto is at the other end of the spectrum. Optimistic, tuneful and irresistibly energetic, it was music custom made for the cultural apparatchiks, who gave it their instant approval. Written in 1940, it bears no trace of the coming war; it only wants to please, and that it does with rousing success. Like a great character actor, Ehnes is just as convincing performing Khachaturian's buoyant comedy as in the unrelieved tragedies of Britten and Shostakovich. He gives the big tunes a liquid warmth, the propulsive rhythms a toe-tapping urgency. He clearly loves the music, and wants us to love it too. I'm not quite sure why Ehnes chose to fill out this program with two Shostakovich Quartets played by his own recently formed ensemble. Of course, the Shostakovich 7th and 8th Quartets—two of the more caustic and elegiac works in the entire cycle—do contrast dramatically with the light-hearted Khachaturian. But given the abundance of Shostakovich Quartet cycles recently completed or in progress, many of them superlative, did we really need two more, howsoever well-played?
would be remiss if I did not applaud the work of Kirill Krabits and the
Bournemouth Orchestra in the Shostakovich and Britten, and the underrated Mark
Wigglesworth and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the Khachaturian. No
soloist could want for more incisive, detailed, or expressive support. The sound
on the Khachaturian disc is also demonstration-quality, with a true balance
between soloist and orchestra. If the repertory suits you, I wouldn't
hesitate. High recommendations all round.
Bitten, Shostakovitch, Khachaturian Concertos: