This is one hell of a performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Emmanuelle Bertrand and conductor Pascal Raphé team up to produce one of the most intense and neurotic versions yet of this intense and neurotic piece. In the outer movements, they adopt fleet tempos that emphasize the music’s twitchy edge, and the engineers daringly balance Bertrand a touch less forward then usual, comfortably within the ensemble. This highlights every mocking grunt and snort of the wind section – listen to the contrabassoon in the first movement’s second subject. It’s unforgettably vivid and to the point.
The slow movement and ensuing cadenza, by contrast, are intense in a different way: slow, hushed, and grave (save at the anguished climax of the former). I was particularly pleased that Bertrand was able to keep her usually adenoidal breathing in check at the start of the cadenza. Indeed, although a certain amount of huffing and puffing seems to come with the territory in this concerto, Bertrand is no worse than many of her colleagues, and she at least has the excuse of being nakedly expressive to a degree that makes you fear for her mental health. The horn, clarinet, and timpani soloists also are all excellent.
The couplings are interesting and apt, and no less well done. Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata still isn’t all that well known. It dates from the time of the First Piano Concerto, before the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk debacle, and so represents his mature early style. It’s a big, serious, very beautiful piece that both Bertrand and pianist Pascal Amoyel play with the attention to detail that it deserves. The Moderato for cello and piano is a recently discovered fragment that presumably dates from about the same time as the Sonata, and makes an apt encore. Still, it’s the concerto that most lingers in the mind here – it’s just sensational, and may well become your “go to” version of the piece. (David Hurwitz)