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Dmitri Shostakovich
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40; Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107;
Moderato for Cello and Piano
Emmanuelle Bertrand (cello) and Pascal Amoyel (piano)
Pascal Rophe conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Review By Max Westler


  Dmitri Shostakovich is a small, grey-haired man with a narrow face and nervously darting eyes. As I ask him questions, he stares straight at me as if hypnotized. When he answers, he looks all around him, runs permanently trembling hands through his hair, fiddles with a shoelace, polishes his glasses. He speaks fast but haltingly as if always controlling himself to make sure he doesn't say the wrong thing.

Such were the impressions of Gerd Ruge, German television's first foreign correspondent in Moscow, when he interviewed the composer in 1959 (as quoted in the notes for this disc). Stalin had ruthlessly persecuted those non-conforming artists he didn't murder outright, and he seemed to take a particular and sadistic delight in tormenting Shostakovich, who had first earned the dictator's displeasure in 1934 with his "shocking" opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Though by 1959 Stalin had been dead for six years, Shostakovich was still subject to a state cultural apparatus that demanded rigid ideological compliance of its artists. So it was hardly surprising to find him choosing his words very carefully when talking to a Western reporter.

If Shostakovich the man was still cautiously and habitually looking over his shoulder, Shostakovich the composer was speaking fearlessly and boldly: his First Cello Concerto, written in that same year, is one of his most defiant works; his disdain for the State scorches every page. Though Shostakovich called the first movement a "jocular march," it is hardly joking or carefree, but a frenetic scramble in which the cello (confined to variations of DSCH, the composer's signature motto) is set upon by jeering winds and a pompous, menacing French horn that clearly represents authority. The second movement more elegiac, melancholy, but still anxious--is followed by the heart of the work, a lengthy cadenza which is as clear and uncompromising a statement of bitterness and anguish as Shostakovich ever wrote. The short final movement returns to the frantic mood of the opening, but is full of burlesque and parody. Instead of the requisite happy ending, Shostakovich gives the commissars a sound and fury signifying nothing.

The Cello Concerto is in every way an uncompromising work, but that's never stopped cellists from rising to its challenges. Next to the Dvorak and the Elgar, the Shostakovich First Concerto is the most often recorded work for cello and orchestra. Since Rostropovich gave the work its premiere (with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959), there have been no fewer than 64 recordings of it, with new ones appearing every month. Though I can't say I've heard all of those performances, I am familiar with many of the classic recordings, and I do try to keep abreast of the new ones. But here's the thing. I've never heard a bad performance of this music. And that makes my job all the more complicated. When it comes to reviewing, it's much easier to praise or damn a recording, than to say, "Well, here's yet another good one."

Well, here's yet another good one. But in this case, I'm going to give it a strong recommendation, for this recording has some distinct virtues that set it apart from the pack. For one thing, there's the matter of recording perspective: too many (otherwise praiseworthy) performances of this work choose to place the soloist too far front, the orchestra too far back. Though this is standard practice for concerto recordings, it is especially inappropriate here. The Shostakovich Cello Concerto is truly a work for soloist and orchestra, and the much more natural perspective of this recording soloist and orchestra interwoven accentuates and intensifies the conflict between the two. The sense of an assault the cello being mocked by those squalling winds and that ominous horn is visceral throughout. And for this we have to thank not only Bertrand and Rophe for working out the balances between cello and orchestra so exactly, but also producer Tobias Lehman for giving us demonstration-quality sound that captures every luminous detail even when the combat is at its most heated.

I've never heard Emmanuelle Bertrand before, a much renowned soloist in Europe just entering mid-career. But I was deeply impressed by the concentration, intensity, and psychological depth of her performance here. She inhabits the solo part as fully as an actress performing a role: in this case, a man, much like Shostakovich himself, whose sensitive nature is being slowly unnerved, stripped bare, by state-sanctioned censure and intimidation; but who nevertheless remains unyielding. Though there are many approaches to the solo part in this concerto, I've never heard one that so perfectly balances the defiance we hear in the first and third movements and the doubt and anguish we hear in the second movement and cadenza.

I've always thought the perfect pairing for Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto is his Second, a much more elusive, inward, and rarely performed work. But the early Op. 40 Sonata makes perfect sense. Written at about the same time as the First Piano Concerto, it shares that work's youthful exuberance and freewheeling irreverence. Hearing it on the same program as the Cello Concerto allows us to contrast the insolent young composer and his more world-weary, self-questioning counterpart. I hasten to add the performance is exciting, edgy, and brilliantly played.

If you already own a classic recording of this work (there are at least two by Rostropovich), but would like to hear a compelling alternative in great sound, I highly recommend Betrand / Rophe, especially as it comes with the seldom-heard Piano Trio. If you don't know either of these works at all, this disc should provide a bracing introduction.





Recording Quality: 













































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