Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 2

Concerto No. 2 in C-sharp minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 129

BORN: September 25, 1906. Saint Petersburg
DIED: August 9, 1975. Moscow

COMPOSED:  Shostakovich composed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1967 for David Oistrakh, to whom the score is dedicated. It was meant to be a gift for the violinist’s sixtieth birthday, September 30, 1968; in the event, Shostakovich finished the work much sooner than he had expected—in fact, in time for Oistrakh’s fifty-ninth birthday

WORLD PREMIERES: In his notes for the recording by Ilya Kaler with Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony (Naxos), Ateş Orga writes that Oistrakh first tried the concerto out on September 13, 1967 in the relative obscurity of “the small town of Bolshevo, outside Moscow. . . . A tape was sent to the composer, who thought the interpretation ‘glorious.’” The official premiere then took place two weeks later, on September 26, 1967, with Oistrakh and the Moscow Philharmonic, Kirill Kondrashin conducting

US PREMIERE: Oistrakh was also soloist in the United States premiere on January 11, 1968, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1998. Antje Weithaas was soloist, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2006. SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was soloist,
Mstislav Rostropovich conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, tom-tom, and strings

DURATION: About 32 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Shostakovich wrote six concertos, two each for piano, for violin, and for cello. In each pair, the first work is the more brilliant, virtuosic, and outspoken, and, in consequence, much more frequently played. The difference is most striking between the two cello concertos, least so between the two works for piano. But there were always two kinds of Shostakovich, public and private. That is of course true of many composers, with Beethoven as an obvious example, but in Shostakovich the distinction is especially pronounced.

More than any other major composer, Shostakovich was buffeted and disturbed in his work by external forces, in his case political. The first time this happened was in 1936, when Pravda, on direct orders from Joseph Stalin, attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that seamy and brilliant masterpiece of raw verismo which had already achieved 180 performances in Leningrad and Moscow since its premiere two years before. The attack shocked and frightened him. The next year, though, he came back fighting, confronting his admiring audience and his dangerous critics with the very public Symphony No. 5. The gamble paid off, and for the next decade, he was in a position of strength in the musical life of the Soviet Union.

In 1948, together with several of his colleagues, Prokofiev and Khachaturian among them, Shostakovich was subjected to brutal bullying at an extended musical court-martial run by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's henchman in ideological and cultural matters, one of his entourage at the Lady Macbeth performance, and the man whom Shostakovich believed to have been the author of the Pravda attacks in 1936. Zhdanov died not long after this inquisition, but the climate did not change. This time Shostakovich, older and that much the more tired, nervous, and vulnerable than in 1937, responded by withdrawing, adding four of his most beautiful compositions to the desk drawer that already held the score of the Fourth Symphony: the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (both completed in 1948), the String Quartet No. 4 (1949), and the String Quartet No. 5 (1952). He avoided public forums, and the eight-year interval between his Ninth (1945) and Tenth (1953) is the longest between any two of his symphonies.

The Symphony No. 13 was Shostakovich's last "public" work. His Symphony No. 14 is a chamber-musical song cycle on poems about death, and his Fifteenth and last is enigmatic, humorous, sweetly endearing, grim, and about as private as a symphony for normal-sized orchestra with quite a bit of extra percussion can manage to be. The Violin Concerto No. 2 is part of Shostakovich's quasi-private Spätlese. Where the Violin Concerto No. 1 is fierce, passionate, grandly suffering, aggressively humorous, hugely virtuosic, in every way in-your-face, the Second Concerto is inward and wry. Its composition was shadowed by illness. Shostakovich had only recently recovered from his first severe heart attack, and when, two months after the Moscow premiere, Oistrakh and Eugene Ormandy gave the first performance in Western Europe, the composer was in the hospital again.

Assessment of the music of Shostakovich's last fourteen years, the years after Babi Yar, has diverged wildly. To some listeners, the late works, especially the Second Cello Concerto, the last string quartets (especially the final four), and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth symphonies, have suggested the kind of transfiguration we associate with the last compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. (Titian, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Cézanne are among those who also achieved a sublime late style.) On the other hand, I once heard a conductor say that, after Babi Yar, the composer "no longer had any teeth." This esteemed interpreter of Shostakovich found much to admire in the last concertos and symphonies, but thought them not suitable for public performance, certainly not in this country, where there is "a lack of context."

THE MUSIC  The key of the Violin Concerto No. 2 is C-sharp minor, whose "awkwardness" bothered Oistrakh at first. Perhaps Shostakovich intended an allusion to Beethoven's great string quartet in that key, Opus 131, his desire for a kind of alliance with Beethoven becoming ever stronger in his last years, or perhaps to the Fifth Symphony of his beloved Mahler, a work he had heard on a visit to Vienna in 1965. "Perhaps" is an important word in the last sentence. Shostakovich can tempt one to read too much into his music. On the other hand, his art is often an art of reminiscence, and this concerto summons its share of ghosts of earlier music, Shostakovich's own and that of others. Ghosts of ghosts, I want to say, so faint are some of these apparitions.

The first sound is that of cellos and basses hesitantly exploring the possibilities of just four notes. Over this, the solo violin sings a ruminative melody; everything that is dark about it enhanced by those restless eighth notes below. The melody is spun out, beautifully, the texture becomes fuller, and the music gains momentum. At a tempo double the original one, a new theme arrives, the violin duetting with various woodwinds, and always with some drumming—on strings, never on drums—in the background. Before long, the tempo is increased again, the effect strengthened by the change in meter from 4/4 to 3/4 so that each measure is shorter as well as quicker. This crescendo of energy culminates in the arrival of a march, or perhaps a mock march; by now the percussion has become real, with tom-toms throwing in odd punctuation. After a development comes a cadenza, a two-part invention for the solo violin. This is followed by a much-tightened recapitulation, and the movement comes to a spectral close.

The slow movement begins with the solo violin, which is soon engaged in a series of dialogues with wind instruments, beginning with the flute. The harmonies are simple, the cadences strong. This Adagio, too, arrives at a cadenza, very different from the one in the first movement. Set over a timpani roll, it begins with explosive chords, then changes to virtuosic runs. It sounds as though it were going to be a transition into a new movement; instead, it becomes a kind of recitative or arioso over tremolando strings, eventually settling into the melody the flute played at the beginning. The accompaniment, with its strange viola glissandos, merits your attention. As the orchestral strings, now muted, make their way to the final cadence, the solo horn steps forward to sing the music to its poetic, gentle close.

The solo violin picks up the horn's final note and, the tempo still Adagio, begins to explore new ideas. The four horns, fortissimo and snarling, make mocking comment. The violin gives as good as it gets. In a new tempo, Allegro, the finale has begun. It is a humorous rondo, humor in Shostakovich always involving a certain ration of acid. There are three contrasting episodes, one lyric, the second scherzando, the third a chamber-musical conversation for violin with oboe and clarinet. And once again, a cadenza is an important feature, this one being the biggest and structurally and expressively the most powerful of the three in this concerto. When it came to inventing bang-up final cadences, Shostakovich was one of the best, and he does not fail us—or the performers—here.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Soloist and SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik on the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2

“Shostakovich wrote two violin concertos, both dedicated to violinist David Oistrakh. This concerto was written in honor of Oistrakh’s 60th birthday. Oistrakh was a champion of both concertos, and he performed the premiere of both of them. I guess for Shostakovich, Oistrakh was the number one interpreter of his music for violin!

Of course—musicians don’t want to copy anyone’s interpretation, no matter how great it was. Oistrakh made two different recordings of this piece, and they are fantastic. Shostakovich used materials throughout the concerto that twist street songs, folk songs, and melodies from Oistrakh’s birthplace, Odessa, on the Black Sea. There was a large Jewish population there, and one of the melodies that Shostakovich picks up in this concerto is a cry in Yiddish from a vendor selling bagels! It so genuinely depicts the atmosphere of Odessa. It isn’t your typical classical phrasing or sound, and it leans more toward folk fiddling than an academic concerto. I like it a lot!"

Maxim Vengerov with Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra (Teldec)  |  Ilya Kaler with Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony (Naxos)  |  Gidon Kremer with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Of historical importance: David Oistrakh with Yevgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra (BBC Legends)

Online: Keeping Score: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, by Elizabeth Wilson (Princeton)  |  Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel Fay (Oxford)  |  Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970, by Boris Schwarz (Norton)  |  Dmitry Shostakovich: About Himself and His Times (Progress Publishers)

(February 2018)