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Composed: 1959

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd=piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd=contrabassoon), horn, timpani, celesta, strings, and solo cello

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 26, 1959, Arturo Basile conducting, with Mstislav Rostropovich, soloist

About this Piece

Concertos have traditionally been written with specific performers in mind, and none are more intimately associated with their initial protagonists than those of Shostakovich. His two piano concertos were designed for himself and his son, Maxim, respectively; the two violin concertos for David Oistrakh; while both of his cello concertos were inspired by the sound, style, and personality of the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

The First Cello Concerto was completed in the summer of 1959 and given its first performance the following October by Rostropovich and the Leningrad Philharmonic under the composer’s favorite conductor, Evgeny Mravinsky, who only a few weeks earlier had introduced to the world Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony.

Shortly after the Leningrad premiere, during one of the periodic Cold War thaws, Rostropovich and the composer traveled to the United States for the American premiere, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The First Cello Concerto is marked by mocking wit alternating with abject gloom–the qualities that kept Shostakovich in hot water with the cultural commissars for much of his creative life. But at least one important Soviet critic detected, without being specific, “a welcome strain of Soviet realism.” The work was allowed to achieve its high level of popularity at home without official hindrance.

The opening movement was described by its composer as “an allegretto in the style of a jocular march.” It has a simple, four-note rhythmic motto theme, essential to the entire structure of the movement, that is brought back at the work’s end. The solo French horn plays a vital part here and throughout much of the concerto.

The poignant slow movement–the score’s longest–features a broad cantilena theme for the cello answered by clarinets, followed by a particularly striking melody for muted violins. The movement winds down with a dramatic diminuendo riff for the solo instrument, involving eerie harmonics, the solo horn joining in against the ghostly tinkling of the celesta. This leads without break into the third movement, a ferociously demanding solo cadenza based on themes from the preceding movements. This, again without pause, dumps us into the slashing, sardonic finale, which concludes with restatements of earlier material by solo horn, then high winds, the cello itself, timpani, and ultimately by all the winds, whose howling is cut short by some decisive timpani thwacks. –Herbert Glass