Shostakovich’s Violin Concertos 1 & 2 performed by Frank Peter Zimmermann

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich
WORKS: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin); NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Alan Gilbert

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Devotees of the Shostakovich violin concertos are spoilt for choice when it comes to fine recordings of these masterpieces. Even so, Frank Peter Zimmermann’s vividly recorded performances, drawn from concerts in Hamburg in 2012 and 2015, stand out as formidable achievements. They match technical mastery at the highest level with profound insight. No less impressive is the compelling interaction between Zimmermann and the excellent NDR Elbphilharmonie under Alan Gilbert, a crucial component in music that is so symphonic in design. The orchestra’s contributions to the dialogue are always carefully shaped and fully responsive to the subtle nuances in the soloist’s phrasing.

Like his German counterpart Christian Tetzlaff, Zimmermann eschews the consistently full-bodied vibrato sound and propensity for rubato commonly associated with the works’ dedicatee, David Oistrakh. More striking, however, is his decision to base his interpretation of the First Concerto on Shostakovich’s autograph manuscript, presenting somewhat different metronome marks and bowing instructions to the familiar published version edited by Oistrakh. So, in the opening Nocturne, Zimmermann adopts a much faster flowing tempo, lopping a good two minutes off the duration of the classic Oistrakh/Mravinsky recording. At first such an approach seems startling since it divests the movement of its familiar numbing stillness. At the same time, restlessness and unease bubble to the surface, especially in the few climactic moments in the movement. It is no less unsettling. Even more controversial is the forward-moving Passacaglia where Zimmermann and Gilbert steadfastly avoid the sense of monumentality that is normally encountered. But few could take issue with Zimmermann’s stunning negotiation of the cadenza as it moves inexorably from morbid introspection to one of the most visceral outpourings of anger and aggression in violin literature. The sheer firepower Zimmermann draws from his 1711 Stradivarius is electrifying both in the klezmer-inflected grotesque dance of the Scherzo and the breathless race to the finishing line in the Burleske.

Zimmermann also makes a strong case for the undeservedly underrated Second Concerto. Deploying the widest possible range of colour, dynamics and articulation, he brings a surprisingly varied degree of emotions to music that can often sound unremittingly dour and suffocating. Zimmermann and Gilbert adopt slightly faster speeds for all three movements than a number of their rivals, but are much more adept at handling the tricky change of tempo in the middle of the opening Moderato, ratcheting up the tension to the maximum as the violin engages in an increasingly bitter onslaught with the orchestra.

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Erik Levi