Shostakovich composed his two cello concertos for his close friend, the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. And as soon as the First appeared in 1959, it immediately entered the international repertory as one of the strongest and most effective concertos ever written for this instrument.
This is a piece which makes enormous demands on the soloist. Even though the scoring only asks for a small orchestra, the soloist must summon up tremendous reserves of power and rhetoric. Flexibility is crucial too, as the music constantly and unpredictably jumps between grievous sadness and shrill mockery.
The first movement, with its madly memorable ‘hook’, is one of the composer’s most biting pieces of satire, chewing obsessively at the vulgar popular song ‘Birdie, birdie!’. By contrast the heartbreaking slow movement is shot through with emotional echoes from one of Shostakovich’s favourite great composers, Musorgsky. A muscular and challenging solo cadenza, showing off Rostropovich’s astonishing technique, leads to a finale which switches constantly between stormy seriousness and caustic laughter, with edgy and sarcastic references on the way to a sentimental Georgian lovesong, ‘Suleiko’, which was said to have been Stalin’s favourite tune.
Note by Gerard McBurney