Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is one of the most enduringly popular of all 20th century concertos, a work combining astonishing virtuosity and brilliance with dark and sinister drama, and a tremendous, almost filmic breadth of imagery.
This was the piece the composer was working on early in 1948 when he was being subjected to vicious public humiliation and condemnation as a ‘formalist’, ‘counter-revolutionary’ and ‘bourgeois sympathiser’. The undoubted inspiration for the music was the legendary violin playing of Shostakovich’s great friend and contemporary, David Oistrakh. After the piece was completed, Oistrakh and the composer played it through privately on violin and piano, and Oistrakh even recorded a home-made tape of it. But Shostakovich wisely deemed that the late 1940s were not the right time to release it publicly and it was not until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, that Oistrakh gave the real premiere with Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, who themselves had given the first performances of so many Shostakovich symphonies.
This is indeed a concerto on a symphonic scale. The opening ‘Nocturne’ with its endlessly shifting harmonies and eeriely elusive melodies is followed by a wild scherzo in 3-time. The slow movement is a stark Passacaglia, leading to one of the longest and toughest cadenzas in the repertoire. The finale is a whirlwind Burlesca. Throughout this concerto the soloist’s technique and stamina are tested to their utmost. Oistrakh called the solo part ‘a Shakespearean role’.
Note by Gerard McBurney