Shostakovich: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Britten: Cello Symphony. Johannes Moser, cello; Pietari Inkinen, WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln. Hanssler Classic CD 98.643.

The cello has never been the most popular instrument around which to build a concerto, so it's not surprising that so few cello concertos exist and that early composers seldom saw fit to write them. But that didn't stop two of the twentieth century's most important composers, Shostakovich and Britten, and it doesn't stop German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser from pursuing a passion for new and modern music, even if one can hardly call the two pieces on this disc "new" or "modern" anymore. Still, they make good companions, coming as they do almost contemporaneously.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote his Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 in 1959, dedicating it to the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who also premiered it. Stalin had been dead several years by then, so Soviet-Russian composers were a little freer to express themselves without the threat of heavy government censorship. Shostakovich scores his concerto for a relatively small chamber orchestra, from which the cello emerges the solid leader.

The first movement is a rather lively, even humorous march, which Moser pulls off in fine fashion, never flashy yet very precise in a rendition filled with vitality. The second, slow movement Shostakovich supposedly modeled on Russian folk music, and it does have a plaintive, soulful quality to it under Moser. The third movement takes us into much more dangerous territory, the complete opposite of how the work began, and it must have given the government overseers some cause to doubt the composer's intentions to produce music conforming to the Party's pedestrian cultural tastes. This Cadenza takes us directly and without pause to the brief, throbbing finale, in which Moser's cello almost cries out for some kind of release.

The second work on the program is the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 by the English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). It was again Rostropovich to whom Britten dedicated it and the performer who premiered it. Britten uses a much larger orchestra than Shostakovich did, and the general tone of the music is different and more varied. And again in this recording we get a most eloquent and reflective response from Moser and his cello, which practically speaks aloud to us in musical terms, especially in the second-movement Presto with its bizarre, eccentric, yet wholly fascinating mood changes. All of which leads us to a lengthy finale of grand, formal proportions, Moser guiding us with his cello through a series of intricate passageways running hither and yon in slightly dark places.

Moser proves his worth as a virtuosic performer, keeping one glued to his playing even when the music is less than ideal for easy accessibility. Moser makes it accessible and all but forces us to enjoy it whether we want to or not. He's a most persuasive, almost mesmeric artist.

The sound, recorded in 2011 at the Koln Philharmonie, is excellent. Although in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto the cello seems a bit close at first, one gets used to it, and the instrument's proximity does serve to remind us of its dominant importance, after all. More important, it emphasizes and reveals the instrument's rich, resonant sounds, with a fine sense of depth in the small orchestra behind it. There is also a fine sense of air around all the instruments and plenty of transparency in the midrange.

Remarkably, in the longer Britten piece the sonics are just as clear and just as lifelike within a wonderfully natural-sounding acoustic setting. The very top end might have been a touch more extended and open; otherwise, it's an impressive recording overall.


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