May 28, 2020
(++++) DRAMA, PAIN AND BEAUTY
Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Alina Ibragimova, violin; State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Yevgeny Svetlanov” conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Hyperion. $14.50.
Forty-five years after his death, Shostakovich continues to exercise a fascination on performers and audiences through his unique aural world and the way it seems to reflect the disturbances and uncertainties of our time just as effectively as it limned the very different circumstances of his own. A new generation of soloists, such as violinist Alina Ibragimova (born 1985), is discovering that Shostakovich has just as much to say in the 21st century as he was able to put forth, often rather obliquely in Soviet days, in the 20th. Even when Shostakovich wrote music for a specific performer – both his violin concertos were created for David Oistrakh (1908-1974) – the material has expressive power and intensity that reach out through other musicians and connect with audiences in an exceptionally visceral way. Ibragimova’s hyper-virtuosic account of the first concerto on a new Hyperion CD perfectly encapsulates the ways in which so much by Shostakovich continues to seem always new and remarkably up-to-date in compositional techniques. The concerto’s first movement is designated Nocturne but is scarcely an inviting nighttime scene, being shot through with disquiet and uncertainty in ways that Shostakovich communicates particularly well and to which Ibragimova is particularly sensitive. The second movement is one of those biting scherzos that are immediately identifiable as being Shostakovich’s – and here, when the violin briefly falls silent, the eruptive sound that Vladimir Jurowski evokes from the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Yevgeny Svetlanov” is especially penetrating. The heart of this concerto is its third and longest movement, a Passacaglia – one of several movements that Shostakovich created in this old-fashioned style and brought quite thoroughly into the modern age, complete with a plethora of emotion. Ibragimova soars here, her sensitivity to the movement’s subtle mood shifts carrying the deeply emotive material along to what sounds like a nearly continuous climax: as in the first part of Boito’s Mefistofele, just when it seems that the music cannot possibly go higher (emotionally higher, in Shostakovich’s case), the composer finds a way to bring it to yet another peak – and Ibragimova not only follows Shostakovich’s lead but also pulls the audience up and up with her. This movement is so exhausting to play that Oistrakh asked Shostakovich to open the finale, which is played attacca after an extended cadenza, with the orchestra alone – allowing the violinist a moment of breathing room. Shostakovich complied – but it is his original version of the start of the finale, in which the soloist proffers the main theme, that Ibragimova offers here, and without any flagging of technique or apparent diminution of enthusiasm. The effect is to re-emphasize the violinist both as a guide to the many emotions stirred by the concerto and as the central character in a very extended drama (to some extent a melodrama) in which Shostakovich delves into his own postwar thoughts and concerns (the concerto dates to 1947-48) while reflecting those of the Soviet Union and, it seems in retrospect, the rest of the world as well. The Passacaglia and, in particular, the cadenza with which it concludes, cry out for some kind of resolution – some element of hopefulness – but what happens when Ibragimova introduces the finale, marked Burlesque, is that the emotional tone becomes one of near-hysteria, a frantic reaching-out for some sort of satisfactory peroration without any expectation of finding one. Thanks to the excellence of both soloist and orchestra, this finale is a musical thrill ride that may well leave listeners breathless. But Ibragimova and Jurowski never lose sight of the reality that this is exhilaration without assurance: the music plunges headlong to its conclusion without ever really providing a satisfactory summation of the multitude of emotions that it has called forth.
The second concerto, which dates to 1967, is a somewhat more modest work than the first, and its sensibilities are more muted if equally enigmatic. There is a delicacy, even lyricism, to the work’s opening, a near-tenderness that goes beyond anything in the first concerto – although this is by no means a resigned or reserved work: it takes less than three minutes for typical Shostakovich acerbity to begin to emerge. However, this is an altogether more-moderate piece than the first concerto, not only emotionally but also in tempo: the first movement is Moderato, the second Adagio, and the third also Adagio until the concluding Allegro bursts through. Although scarcely quiet, the second concerto is more intimate than the first, with three movements rather than four and a shorter total running time (in Ibragimova’s performances, 32½ minutes vs. 39). The second concerto has nothing like the overwhelming cadenza at the end of the Passacaglia of the first, but instead has three cadenzas, which collectively keep the work’s focus on the soloist and at the same time give the piece as a whole a sense of unity. Ibragimova’s performance here is not quite as unerring as in the first concerto – she seems to drift a bit, emotionally, in the earlier cadenzas – but the way in which her playing is interwoven with that of the orchestra (which is slightly smaller than is the first concerto’s ensemble) testifies to the excellence of the close collaboration between her and Jurowski. The spare sound of the second concerto, in which Shostakovich repeatedly uses solos or small instrumental groups to set off the orchestra as a whole (somewhat in the manner of Mahler), comes through exceptionally well here, whether in pizzicato string passages or delicate snare-drum touches. There is a frequent sense here of striving for something – just what, Shostakovich does not quite pin down – especially in the second movement, in which the warm but very clear tone of Ibragimova’s Anselmo Bellosio 1775 violin is heard to particularly good effect. The finale here is less frantic and frenetic than that of the first concerto, with Ibragimova’s focus on the dancelike rhythms (interspersed with percussion eruptions) coming through particularly well. There is some near-playfulness in Ibragimova’s handling of this movement’s cadenza, which is longer than either of the concerto’s earlier ones. But when the orchestra reenters afterwards, we are again in emotionally uncertain territory, now with fanfares and percussion outbursts underlining and almost competing with the swells and swerves of the soloist, until a final resolution that is decisive but at the same time oddly uncertain – a compelling conclusion to a CD featuring very distinguished playing and very considerable insight into music that seems always to have something new (if not always something precise) to deliver to listeners.