The Colburn Orchestra Plays Shostakovich - 'Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major'

For the full performance, which includes Shostakovich and Brahms, click here.

"Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107"
by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

The cello concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich, like many other contemporaneous works featuring the cello, were written for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). Rostropovich, apart from his legacy of utmost artistry and effortless mastery of the cello, is also responsible for inspiring a very large portion of the 20th-century repertoire for the instrument. In addition to Shostakovich's two concertos, Rostropovich had already inspired such great and well-known staples of the repertoire as Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 and Symphony-Concerto, op.125 and continued to inspire works from composers as diverse as Aram Khachaturian, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and Witold Lutosławski. Rostropovich's relationship with Shostakovich began in 1943 in his student days at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Shostakovich. Friendship between the two men followed, as did a recording of Shostakovich's 1934 Cello Sonata with the composer at the piano. Shostakovich stated that his inspiration for his Cello Concerto No. 1 came from hearing Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, a work Rostropovich persuaded Prokofiev to write while Rostropovich was working as the composer's secretary at the Conservatory.

Composed in 1959, Cello Concerto No. 1 has assumed a place as not only one of the most popular and often-performed works for cello, but of all of Shostakovich's oeuvre as well. Along with the concerti of Dvořák, Schumann and Elgar, it comprises the core of any concert cellist's repertoire. It was written toward the end of Shostakovich's life and is the fourth of his six concerti, following the two piano concerti and the first violin concerto. The work opens with an altered but instantly recognizable version of the "DSCH" motif for which Shostakovich was famous. This signature motive is derived from the German transliteration of his initials (D. Sch.), consisting of the notes D-E-flat-C-B (the S phonetically from Es and H become the note B as it is in German notation) similar to the famous musical transcription of B-A-C-H. The altered DSCH motive is introduced in the first movement and subtly modified throughout the rest of the concerto, appearing in all movements but the second, serving as a common thread that thematically connects one movement to the next. The opening theme, with which the concerto is identified, was clearly very important to Shostakovich. He uses this theme again in his somewhat autobiographical String Quartet No. 8, one of the only instances of "self-quoting" by the composer. Like his first violin concerto, the work features an extensive cadenza which stands on its own as a separate movement and leads attacca into the finale. As in the Violin Concerto cadenza, the cadenza movement for the Cello Concerto blends thematic material from the entire composition and serves as a sort-of linchpin that ties the work together. The finale is a short, extremely virtuosic rondo of sorts, with the main theme based on the chromatic scale. The theme, which is rather frantic sounding, appears three times, interspersed by extremely virtuosic scalar passages, before the work explodes in a furious conclusion.

Written by Conservatory student Matthew Cohen, violist in the Artists Diploma program.

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