The Kennedy Center

Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

Shostakovich composed his Second Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich in the spring of 1966; the first performance was given on September 25 of that year (the composer's 60th birthday) by Mr. Rostropovich, with the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov, in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. Rostropovich was also the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, conducted by Howard Mitchell on May 12, 1967; in the NSO's only subsequent performances of the Concerto prior to the present concert, on May 18, 19 and 20, 2000, the soloist was Lynn Harrell and the conductor was Gerard Schwarz.

Shostakovich's two cello concertos, though both composed for the same soloist within a period of only seven years, are sharply contrasted in both their character and their dimensions. Most conspicuously in this respect, the Second is as expansive as its far more familiar predecessor is concise. Both concertos, however, bear the unmistakable stamp of their composer, and of his time. In The New Shostakovich, published in 1990, Ian MacDonald suggests that each of Shostakovich's concertos for string soloists--two each for violin and for cello--is "a drama of the individual against the mob"; the present work seems to support such an interpretation even more than the three others. It has been suggested, too, that this work was composed in part as a memorial to the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose death occurred on March 5, 1966 (the thirteenth anniversary of the deaths of both Prokofiev and Stalin), a month before the ailing Shostakovich began work on the Concerto at a sanatorium in the Crimea.

The First Cello Concerto followed soon after the Symphony No. 11, a work nominally recalling the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905 but believed by many to have been Shostakovich's response to the similarly abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956. The present work, which some commentators cite as marking the end of Shostakovich's "second period," came between two far more controversial symphonies?more controversial because their sung texts left little doubt regarding the composer's motivation: the Symphony No. 13, comprising choral settings of Babiy Yar and four additional poems by Evgeny Yevtushenko, and No. 14, whose eleven poems--by Rilke, Kuchelberger, Apollinaire and Garc?a Lorca--all center on the subject of death and are divided between a soprano and a basso. No. 13 had been placed under a ban by the Soviet authorities following its premiere in 1962, until Yevtushenko grudgingly allowed an alteration of the inflammatory text of his Babiy Yar, and even then the work was hardly spoken of, let alone performed, in the USSR. The additional tension created by that situation surely had a part in shaping the Second Cello Concerto and determining its character.

In large part that character is symphonic, and in a specifically Shostakovian sense, as indicated by the work's structure. Here we have the number of movements expected in a concerto, and the traditional proportions in which the opening one is the longest and most richly developed, but the content is by no means as expected. In place of an opening Allegro Shostakovich created a first movement headed Largo, which in more ways than one recalls the similarly headed opening movement of his Sixth Symphony: brooding, introspective music on a level of intimacy remarkable even for Shostakovich outside the realm of chamber music. Indeed, it is on that level, an intensely personal one far from anything resembling the traditional concerto showcasing of a virtuoso soloist, that the entire drama of this work takes place.

The cello opens the work alone, and is heard almost constantly, either set off in solo passages, or responding to a gesture from an orchestral section, or simply cutting through the orchestral texture. Without attempting to identify specific references to, or "hidden echoes of," Shostakovich's earlier works, it may be noted that characteristic gestures are so numerous as to suggest something along the lines of Strauss's self-quotations in A Hero's Life. But Shostakovich here celebrates no hero; the image that emerges is more in the nature of a witness who survived. The exchange between the cello and the bass drum in the middle of the first movement impresses as something that is the very opposite of brilliance: an evocation of utter darkness.

In respect to dimensions, the Concerto is fairly symmetrical, in that both outer movements are of more or less equal length. The second and third are directly connected, and both are marked Allegretto; together they form, if not exactly a "darkness-into-light" transformation in the old sense, an arousal, or attempted arousal, of energy by way of response to the long, meditative movement that preceded them. The brief scherzo-like second movement opens with one of Shostakovich's sardonic little march tunes. The turns it takes may remind us of his admiration for Mahler, particularly in an episode recalling Mahler's use of a klezmer-like idiom in the third movement of his First Symphony (itself in the form of a "sardonic march"). Ian MacDonald cites a "betrayal motif" used by Shostakovich in numerous compositions of this period. There are also apparent self-parodies--of the composer's own "DSch" motto, and of specific gestures from the First Cello Concerto--and more of those juxtapositions of high and low notes found in so many of his scores throughout his creative life, which here underscore the element of the macabre.

By the time all this moves into the final movement things have come pretty much to a head, and the orchestra falls away briefly to permit the cello an extended cadenza, with occasional punctuation by the tambourine. Following this the orchestra returns, not in force but with an utterance from this corner, a gesture from that one, in a gentler, somewhat resigned character. More self-quotations follow, and with them also what we might recognize now as "pre-echoes" of the Fifteenth Symphony--its general mood of nostalgia and childlike simplicity, if not its actual substance. In the second half of this final movement the drama does rise again to an intense pitch, and there is a citation of a brutal motif from the Fourth Symphony (with its original percussion more or less intact) which carries connotations of hopelessness in the face of massive repression. Following that is a sense of all energy's having been spent, and the prevailing mood at the end is one of resignation.