Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, op. 107
solo cello, 2 flutes (doubling piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (doubling contrabassoon), horn, timpani, celesta, strings
notes by James Keays
IV. Allegro con moto
Composed 1959. First performance: October 4, 1959, Leningrad. Mstislav Rostropovich, cello. Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky.
Dmitri Shostakovich was a member of the first generation of Russian composers to be educated and work entirely within the post-revolution Soviet system. Despite the fact that he was officially admonished on two occasions for failure to be ideologically “pure,” he remained true to his ideals and never compromised his artistic integrity. He probably will be remembered as the greatest symphonist of the twentieth century, for his fifteen works in his genre are unequaled in their scope and not likely to be surpassed in number or quality. Together with the same number of parallel string quartets, they span the gamut from the very simple to the intensely complex and personal. His 147 opus numbers also include two operas, six concertos, three ballets, thirty-six film scores, and vocal and chamber music of all types.
Shostakovich’s style might best be called progressive and eclectic, for although he was well-versed in the traditions of Russian and European music, he was not afraid to risk official sanction by using dissonance and even atonality when it served his creative urges. At the same time, he managed to maintain a distance from the various modernist schools which were prominent from time to time during his lifetime. He composed rapidly in a craftsmanlike way with few revisions. Whenever a work turned out to be less than successful, he would move on in hope that the next would be better.
The Violoncello Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1959 during a highly productive and successful period in Shostakovich’s life. It is considered to be his finest concerto because of the unerring way it combines powerful musical ideas with extraordinary virtuoso writing for the solo instrument. The work’s multitude of runs and double stops in difficult “thumb” positions, stopped and natural harmonics, and left hand pizzicato amply demonstrate the composer’s confidence in the abilities of the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom the work was written. Despite the pyrotechnics, the work is simple both in form and in the use of either folk-like material or permutations on Shostakovich’s musical signature DSCH (D, E-flat, C, B-natural). The third movement is an extended cadenza which creates a bridge from the meditative second movement to the boisterous finale. Throughout the work, a solo horn plays the part of the soloist’s alter ego, often engaging in extended dialogues while the orchestra rests. Few concertos in the history of the form make such a powerful utterance.