SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra. BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

by Walter Simmons

SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra. BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin; Maxim Shostakovich conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. EMI CDC-0777 7 54314 2 1 [DDD]; 64:33. Produced by Elizabeth Ostrow.

Here are excellent performances of two 20th-century violin concertos rapidly entering the ranks of repertoire classics. In fact, this release, featuring mainstream superstar violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg, serves to indicate the level of acceptance attained by these two works

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto wins my vote as the greatest violin concerto of the twentieth century. Few works of this composer are as consistently compelling. Nearly forty minutes long and in four movements, the work is symphonic in tone, style, and form (the composer’s adaptation of symphonic form, at least). Two long, brooding, and gravely introspective slow movements are alternately offset by two faster movements that bristle with savage irony. The concerto was written in 1948, an especially repressive period for Soviet composers, so Shostakovich kept it on the shelf for several years, until Stalin’s death. During this period, the composer — for many years an opponent of the anti-Semitism that has always flourished in Russia — incorporated Jewish references into his music to symbolize man’s defenselessness, according to Solomon Volkov. Such references are especially obvious in this concerto — the Scherzo, in particular. The work is thoroughly integrated motivically, with much inter-movement cross-referencing and the recurrent use of the composer’s four-note autobiographical motif. An elaborate cadenza, uniting the third and fourth movements, recapitulates and develops much of the thematic material of the entire work in a manner that is musically gripping as well as technically challenging.

After the pessimism of the Shostakovich concerto, the Barber — written earlier during the same decade — sounds positively floral by comparison, with its outpouring of lovely melodies. The two works actually make an interesting pairing — the one a commentary on grim reality, the other a retreat into reassuring fantasy.

Salerno-Sonnenberg presents extremely fine performances of both works — incisive and meticulously accurate, with a rich, full-bodied tone. She is able to lend to the Shostakovich a good deal of passion and depth, while the Barber receives the appropriate warmth. However, I must append some qualifications to my otherwise favorable recommendation of this disc. I expect that most serious listeners interested in the first Shostakovich violin concerto would prefer a pairing with the second concerto, also a fine and important work. There is no shortage of such pairings at this time. Royal Brown found Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s recording, with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony (Virgin Classics VC-7 91143-2), to be “as good a recording of these two Shostakovich masterpieces as we’re apt to see for many moons” (Fanfare, 14:4). And I would have to recommend Elmar Oliveira’s recording of the Barber (EMI CDC-7 47850 2), because the orchestral support provided by the Saint Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin is more thoughtfully conceived and better attuned to the solo contribution than the accompaniment provided by the London Symphony under Maxim Shostakovich. However, Salerno-Sonnenberg fans, likely to be the main targets for this new release, will find themselves with excellent readings of two concertos that will broaden their knowledge and deepen their appreciation of the violin concerto repertoire.