Soul-searching with Dmitry’s Second Cello Concerto

The Unknown. © Charles Thibo

Eery. That’s what it is – eery. Shostakovich’s second cello concerto. I am currently playing one of Shostakovich’s preludes and will embark on learning the corresponding fugue soon. Odd accords, odd sound, odd melodies. Shostakovich’s music is odd and he was the odd man out among the Soviet Union’s composers. Subversive in sounds and thoughts. Ambiguous whenever possible. That’s probably the reason why I love his music.

In 1966, over a period of four months, he wrote his Cello Concerto No. 2, op. 126. While he composed the piece he was unsure whether it would be a cocnerto or his 14th symphony. It became a concerto, written for the violinist Mstislav Rostropovich. He struggled with the third movement, claimed in April 1966 that it was “very bad” and rewrote it. By the end of April he was done and sent the piano score to Rostropovich from his sanatorium in Yalta. This was a first, Shostakovich hadn’t shown him anything before it was completed. The cellist studied the piece, flew to Yalta and played it for the composer in mid-May.

As so often with Shostakovich, the piece is hard to describe. Formally speaking, it has three movements, a very long and rather thrilling first one, an equally long second and very short finale. It is deeply introspective, but what is Shostakovich looking for? The truth about human nature? His past? is attitude towards the system? The eeriness the irony, the sarcasm – is that what the composer found during introspection? In the second and the third movement there’s a theme ressembling an Ukrainian ditty. The longing for youtful innocence?

It doesn’t matter anymore what inspired Shostakovich. The cello concerto is one of his most powerful works, emotionally overwhelming if you let the music take control of your soul. And if it leads you to introspection, I believe the piece achieves its aim. Stop. Feel. Think. Fear if there’s anything to be feared. And overcome your fear as the composer did. Many times.

Op. 126 has been recorded by Alisa Weilerstein and the Symphonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunkorchesters.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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