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Cello Concerto No. 2

Like many of Shostakovich's later works, the Cello Concerto No. 2 is dark, probing, and thoughtful, but with a charmingly off-kilter middle-movement scherzo.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He wrote his Cello Concerto No. 2 in spring 1966, for Mstislav Rostropovich, who was soloist in the premiere performed by the USSR State Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov on Shostakovich’s 60th birthday, September 25, 1966, in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

Rostropovich was soloist, under Seiji Ozawa’s direction, in the first BSO performance of the Cello Concerto No. 2 on Sunday, August 10, 1975. He played the piece in an open rehearsal on Saturday morning, August 9, and that evening conducted the BSO in a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. By haunting coincidence, the composer died earlier that day in Moscow.

In addition to the solo cello, the score of the Cello Concerto No. 2 calls for piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, timpani, percussion (xylophone, whip, woodblock, tambourine, snare drum, tom-tom, bass drum), 2 harps, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 35 minutes long.

Like most Russians, Dmitri Shostakovich loved to celebrate his birthday. Even when he was ailing—which happened often, especially in his later years—he would invite relatives and friends over for zakuski. Those are the Russian equivalent of hors d’oeuvres, but infinitely more filling, diverse, and heart-warming than their French counterpart. Shostakovich observed this custom despite the horrors of war and Stalinist repression. Celebrating and drinking with his many friends was a way for him to assert the values of companionship and fellowship amid the totalitarian inhumanity of the Soviet system.

In 1952, for example, just six months before Stalin’s death, when the demented dictator’s paranoia had reached unprecedented heights and a new purge was widely anticipated, Shostakovich wrote to his old friend and faithful correspondent Isaac Glikman, a Leningrad literary critic, “If you can, come on the 25th to Moscow. Although I am now in a bad mood, I have decided to celebrate my 46th birthday after all. If you can come, then bring with you two salmon and two eels (smoked, of course). On the 25th I am planning dinner at 7 p.m. I don’t even need to tell you how happy I will be if you can come.”

With the passage of the years, however, the arrival of another birthday often threw Shostakovich into depression, as he thought back on the many friends and colleagues who had perished in war and purges. As another letter he wrote to Glikman in 1968 soon after the dispiriting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia seems to indicate, the composer felt deep regret over some aspects of his past. “Tomorrow is my 62nd birthday. People of that age love to be coquettish when answering the question: ‘If you could be born again, would you spend another 62 years the same way you have spent these 62 years?’— ‘Yes, of course, I had some failures, there were disappointments, but overall I would spend those 62 years the same way.’ But if that question were asked of me, I would answer, ‘No. A thousand times no!’ ”

In 1966, Shostakovich’s 60th birthday was celebrated with considerable pomp and publicity in the USSR. By this time, Shostakovich was already considered to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and among the most important artists ever produced by the lavishly subsidized Soviet cultural establishment. Despite his frequent and bruising conflicts with Party bureaucrats and censors over the years, Shostakovich’s many “patriotic” works (especially his Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, a source of inspiration in the desperate struggle against Hitler), his silent endurance, his international stature, and his at times disturbing willingness to compromise with the demands of the Communist Party and Soviet state had earned him a chest-full of decorations and a privileged economic status that included a luxurious country house in a special colony reserved for the country’s elite scientists, intellectuals, and artists. As part of the festivities in honor of Shostakovich held in his “jubilee” year of 1966, the White Nights Festival in Leningrad was devoted exclusively to a retrospective of his music, and many other special concerts were planned all over the USSR and abroad.

As a creative commemoration of his 60th birthday, Shostakovich produced two new works in the spring of 1966. One was the playful and satirical Preface to My Collected Works and a Short Reflection upon This Preface, a self-deprecating catalogue of the composer’s titles and duties intended primarily for domestic consumption. Much more public and significant, however, was the Second Cello Concerto.

From the beginning of his work on the new concerto, Shostakovich had a certain soloist in mind: Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom he had been friendly for many years. Shostakovich had already written his First Cello Concerto (completed in 1959) for Rostropovich, and the two (with the composer at the piano) had also made a famous recording of the early Sonata for Cello and Piano (composed in 1934). In a letter to Glikman dated April 27, 1966, written from a sanatorium in the Crimea, Shostakovich described his progress: “I have just completed my Second Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Since this work has no literary text or program, I am finding it difficult to write anything about it. It is large in scale. It has three movements. The second and the third movements are performed without a pause. In the second movement and in the climax of the third there is a theme that is very similar to the popular Odessa song ‘Kupite bubliki’ (‘Buy our pretzels’). I couldn’t begin to explain what provoked me to do this. But it’s really very similar. As I was composing I was, of course, thinking about the magnificent M. Rostropovich. I’m counting on him to perform it.”

The composer needn’t have worried. Rostropovich was delighted to play the premiere. Initially, the cellist was to have performed with the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky, Shostakovich’s longtime collaborator. But just two weeks before what was to have been the opening concert of the season and a birthday tribute to Shostakovich, Mravinsky suddenly announced that he couldn’t conduct. Mravinsky claimed he did not have enough time to learn the score, but Rostropovich and others believed there was another reason. A few years earlier, Mravinsky had been scheduled to conduct the premiere of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar, but he withdrew because he feared official displeasure over the controversial texts by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko denouncing German and Russian anti-Semitism. After that incident, Mravinsky’s close creative relationship to Shostakovich was colored by guilt, awkwardness, and embarrassment. In the end, the premiere of the Second Cello Concerto was entrusted to Yevgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State Orchestra.

As Elizabeth Wilson has noted in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, the Second Cello Concerto is “darker and more introspective” than the First, “which seemed the perfect vehicle for Rostropovich’s extrovert virtuosity.” Slow and moderate tempos dominate. The first-movement Largo opens with a cello solo, a melancholy phrase revolving around a descending minor second that is then quietly and extensively developed by the strings, with assistance from the harp and horns. At rehearsal number 16, the xylophone, harp, and woodwinds enter and the mood becomes playful and sardonic, in a sort of merry dance macabre. A highly unusual duet between the solo cello and the bass drum follows, leading to the restatement of the first theme by the bassoon. In the final section, the soloist recapitulates the two themes, dark and light, eventually restoring the reflective, almost liturgical mood that prevailed at the outset.

In the tiny second-movement Scherzo, Shostakovich provided ample tongue-in-cheek entertainment for his Russian audience with a sarcastic treatment of the Odessa street vendor’s song “Buy our pretzels.” His use of this familiar tune within the context of a symphony recalls the technique of Mahler, from whom Shostakovich learned a great deal about emotional contrast and structure. The same heavy atmosphere of irony continues in the opening measures of the third movement, where the brass announce a cockeyed fanfare leading into a section constructed on another bizarre combination of instruments, cello solo with tambourine. For the rest of the movement, a short classically serene motif ending in a trill for the soloist serves as a unifying idea, alternating in an almost cinematic montage-like structure with sections of what sounds like enforced and violent gaiety. The violence intensifies with the loud return of the Odessa pretzel song, this time punctuated by terrifying slaps of the whip. But soon the prevailing pensiveness reasserts itself. In the final pages of the concerto, Shostakovich again turns to the large percussion section for eerie and somber effects: against a long held note in the solo part, the wood block, tom-tom, snare drum, and xylophone beat out a quiet but insistent patter. It sounds very much like death knocking at the door.

The American premiere of the Cello Concerto No. 2 was given by Mstislav Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting, at New York’s Carnegie Hall on February 26, 1967.

The first BSO performance of the Concerto No. 2 was given by Mstislav Rostropovich under Seiji Ozawa’s direction on August 10, 1975, the day after the composer’s death.