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Program Notes

THE BACKSTORY The Second Cello Concerto—the penultimate concerto in his catalogue—dates from Shostakovich’s final decade. He had by now endured the ritual cycle of denunciation–followed–by–rehabilitation several times. Back in official favor in 1966, Shostakovich was even honored with multiple State medals at the sixtieth­birthday concert at which the concerto was premiered. Still, he remained all too aware that any sense of “security” was an illusion. As it happened, the new regime of Leonid Brezhnev would soon halt the post­ Stalinist “thaw” inaugurated by Khrushchev, reviving the repressive atmosphere of the past.

Certainly Shostakovich’s previous cello concerto (1959), though written during the period of Khrushchev’s relative easing of controls, is overcast with frightening evocations of the Soviet artist’s precarious position. Embedded in its discourse are suggestive references, including quotes from the composer’s own film music and from a Jewish folk song (musicologist Michael Steinberg compares the effect of the latter to that of the lament by the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov), and even an audacious parody of a song notorious as Stalin’s favorite tune.
But in contrast to the grotesqueries of the First Cello Concerto, a generally subdued tone frames the Second. The soloist plays a subtler protagonist here—one reason the work has been overshadowed by its predecessor. Shostakovich in fact wrote both concertos with the extraordinary expressive range of Mstislav Rostropovich in mind. Yet when he began to conceive the Second Concerto, he actually considered taking it in the direction of a symphony. Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra (also inspired by Rostropovich, who was the soloist at its premiere in 1952) was a work Shostakovich admired. To Isaak Glikman, his long­term close friend, he wrote, “It seems to me that the Second Concerto could have been called the Fourteenth Symphony with a solo cello part.” Shostakovich had completed the Thirteenth— Babi Yar—in 1962 (itself leading to yet another ban). Meanwhile, the concerto looks ahead in some ways to the character of Shostakovich’s final essay in the genre, the Fifteenth Symphony of 1971.

In fact, the Second Cello Concerto anticipates the leaner and sometimes oddly mercurial late style of Shostakovich’s last works in general. He had already been coping with his deteriorating health. A month after finishing the piece, the composer suffered a heart attack, signaling the decline that would beset his final decade. Moreover, the fact that this was a significant anniversary year for Shostakovich may have occasioned a desire to look inward. The concerto’s tone perhaps reflects a sense of quiet desperation over the seemingly inescapable pattern of oppression the composer knew so well. Yet its enigmas resist facile translations into autobiography. This is very much a piece about music itself, albeit one in which the extroverted, virtuoso display so closely associated with a concerto is largely absent. Even in his private correspondence, Shostakovich indicates that he had no particular extramusical dimension in mind. “I find it rather difficult to say anything about it,” he wrote to Glikman after finishing the score, in April 1966, “in view of the fact that it has no literary text or program.”

THE MUSIC On the surface, the concerto follows the traditional three­movement design, but the architecture turns out to have an unusual twist. The first and last movements are of comparable length, dwarfing an interlude–like middle movement, which is seamlessly linked to the finale. And Shostakovich further subverts the “public” guise of the virtuoso concerto by starting with slow and quiet music of an intensely private, brooding, intimate quality (anticipating the direction in which the piece will veer at the end). Its language is developed with symphonic intricacy, beginning with the sparse motif of a repeated pair of half­steps heard at the outset. These four notes form a cell out of which much of the musical material is generated (the First Cello Concerto likewise launches with a seminal four–note motif, though of a very different character).

The soloist sets both the first and second movements in motion and clearly has the spotlight yet weaves in and out of a remarkably unpredictable, at times even otherworldly orchestral fabric. The second theme brings a contrast of gentle harmonies but is closely related to   the opening motif. Signaled by the xylophone and woodwinds, the development takes the music into first fanciful and then wild new regions. Shostakovich effects acceleration by shortening the note values instead of changing the prevailing slow tempo. In one of the concerto’s most unsettling moments, a series of ominous wallops from the bass drum silences the orchestral frenzy, leaving the cello to continue on its own path with a stabbing, mournful version of the central motif, as if in protest. Guided by the lower depths of the orchestra, the cello leads into   a tightly abbreviated reprise of the melancholy introspection from the opening and comes to rest at last on a sustained note. Harp and horn add their colors to the resigned conclusion.

Enclosed throughout Shostakovich’s score are numerous self–quotations, but the brief, scherzo–like middle movement looks outside to borrow from a very humble source. The composer explained to Glikman that he had felt “inexplicably” drawn to a tune that was popular with Odessa’s street vendors (to the lyrics “Pretzels, Buy My Pretzels!”). Undeniably catchy, it’s announced right after the fanfare­flourish with which the cello starts. Biographer Laurel Fay observes that during a New Year’s party with friends a few months before he started writing the piece, Shostakovich played a game of “name that tune” with friends, countering their highbrow classical examples with this barker’s cry, “as if in the grip of youthful nostalgia.” In his insightful recent survey of the composer’s symphonies and concertos, David Hurwitz finds more than passing significance here. He classifies this tune as one of several “Jewish–style melodies” that begin to crop up in the later music (from orchestral to chamber music and songs). Hurwitz speculates that Shostakovich sympathized with their “bitter, forced, hollow joy.” Perhaps, too, as some commentators have suggested, the tune served as a private joke between Shostakovich and Rostropovich.

In any case, this simple tune turns out to be the real engine that drives the Scherzo, passing kaleidoscopically through the orchestra. Over snare drum rolls, the little fanfare that had introduced it echoes in the horns and provides a segue into the final movement, which gave the composer particular trouble. In fact, Shostakovich was so dissatisfied with his original version of the finale that he ditched it and recomposed the whole movement while convalescing at a spa in the Crimea (he also asked Rostropovich to take a look at the score and incorporated one of  the cellist’s suggestions).

The cello, erratically accompanied by tambourine, opens with a cadenza (an improvisatory solo passage) that incorporates the repetitive fanfare motif. It then settles into a new theme whose lyricism alternates with a sprightly march–like fragment. The movement unfolds as a sequence of four rather digressive variations on this theme, each of them linked by a recurrent neoclassical flourish from the cello—graceful and formal as a courtly bow. Beginning with the third of these variations, Shostakovich embeds a systematic, cyclical recall of themes from the earlier two movements, along with smaller cadenzas for the cello.

Shostakovich’s orchestration sparkles with imaginative and unexpected touches. The “pretzel” tune from the scherzo is enlisted again for the finale’s striking climax, with its mix of the brutal and surreal (including the cracking of a whip and choking, high–register gasps from the cello). Shostakovich also alludes to the “breakthrough” fanfare from the finale of his beloved Mahler’s First Symphony. But the frenzy that follows is deflated in the final minutes, and attempts to rally again fall flat. The music becomes fixated once more on the brooding attitude that opened the Concerto. Underscored by ticking percussion that will reappear in the Fifteenth Symphony, the cello is left at last in solitude.—THOMAS MAY

THOMAS MAY is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.