Lynn Harrell Inspires an Exploration of Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2

April 29, 2014, 9:51 AM · Sometimes we musicians get so busy counting and writing slashes and triangles into our parts (which bars are in three? Two? Three-plus-two? etc.) that we completely miss the pre-concert lecture and blow right past the program notes.

Last week, I was subbing in the seconds for the Long Beach Symphony's concert that featured Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 2. This is the much-lesser-played of Shostakovich's two cello concertos, but I think it's my new favorite. Much of it is dark and moody, with a clever second movement that rollicks madly across constantly-changing meters.

Our soloist, the wonderful cellist Lynn Harrell, wisely directed our attention to certain things beyond those tricky rhythms on the page. After we had run the piece at one rehearsal, Lynn turned around to talk about the piece, namely about its unique second movement. The movement is built on a 1920's Odessa street song, "Bubliki, kupitye bubliki," which he explained to mean something like, "You've got a ruble, I've got a bagel, buy my bagels…" (It gets translated variously as "buy my pretzels," "buy my bread" and "buy my doughnuts" as well!)

As we know, for many years in the Soviet Union people were greatly deprived of both rubles and bagels, and Shostakovich was among those who witnessed the horrors of starvation, oppression and death all around him. Lynn related a story of Shostakovich having a dream that a truck had arrived with wood to burn for the people to keep warm, but when he awakened and went to the window, he found that the truck actually was carrying dead bodies. (And here's another example that I found of the environment that bred Shostakovich's unique aesthetic, this account of his seventh symphony being premiered by emaciated musicians in the midst of the Siege of Leningrad).

Considering this context, it's not surprising that the simple, jocular street song takes a biting tone, in the context of this concerto. Shostakovich makes it wail, makes it miss a step and sway off kilter, makes it swerve into the grotesque at times. It's a cool movement, my favorite from this piece, for sure. I couldn't find anything on Youtube with Lynn Harrell playing it, but here's cellist Jamie Walton playing that movement with the Philharmonia Orchestra, under Alexander Briger, from his 2008 recording:

Of course, both of Dmitri Shostakovich's cello concertos were written for his friend, the late Mstislav Rostropovich, and here he is playing it in Sept. 1967, just a year after it was written. There was another reason for the inclusion of the street song in this piece, which I found in these Chicago Symphony program notes:

"Shostakovich saw in the New Year of 1966 — the year that would bring his sixtieth birthday — with close friends, including cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya. At a party game (similar to our "Name That Tune"), Shostakovich played a popular 1920s street song from Odessa that he loved, "Bubliki, kupitye bubliki" (Pretzels, buy my pretzels). That spring, when he began to write the first of two works celebrating his birthday, the song of the pretzels and the sound of Rostropovich's cello merged mysteriously into a new concerto, the second one he wrote for his dear friend to play."

Lynn Harrell

Thanks, Lynn Harrell, Long Beach Symphony colleagues and conductor Enrique Diemecke for this journey through a great piece of the literature, and for encouraging this musician's curiosity about it!


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