Lydia Mordkovitch, who is Russian born but a longtime resident of the UK, isn't well known on this die of the Atlantic; an Oistrakh pupil who plays with his strength and authority, she is now 68, and her best known recordings are the two Prokofiev violin concertos and these two of Shostakovich, both conducted by Neeme Jarvi. anyone who wants to escape the refined oh-so-correctness of current violin playing will appreciate that Mordkovitch has personality and personal ideas to go with it. She can be abrasive and strong-minded, which reminds me of someone younger in the same vein, Leila Josefowicz.
The Shostakovich First has entered the standard repertoire, and although its dedicatee, Davoid Oistrakh, made outstanding recordings of it (especially with Yevgeny Mravinsky), they are no longer incomparable. There are half a dozen superlative recordings, my favorite being from the mesmerizing Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan (with Masur, on Naive). The score is unusual in beginning with a haunting slow movement, and I'm glad that Mordkovitch doesn't refine it out of existence. This is bleakness that isn't hollow but remains emotional. She is abrasive in the hacking attacks that begin the Scherzo, and again full of passion that overrides any mere display. This is one of Shostakovich's most biting Scherzos, and it should have teeth. Jarvi's rough and ready conducting style fits the score well, too; the recorded sound is fairly distant for the orchestra but close for the violin. This, too, works well, because it's Mordkovitch who has all the ideas.
The slow movement features a solo Passacaglia that is the essence of defiant suffering; it's one of the composer's greatest utterances, which Oistrakh's power carried off to unforgettable effect. (Even more remarkably because the great violinist was a Soviet company man, like Richter.) Jarvi delivers the horn-dominated opening as a cry from the heart before the solemn procession of the Passacaglia begins. Even the best violinists, no doubt afraid to out-Herod Herod, don't try to imitate Oistrakh, and this can seem like underplaying. Mordkovitch displays heartbreaking melancholy beauty in the melodic line, steadily tightening the screws to a painful intensity (which, after all, must be why Shostakovich chose this repetitive form).
In the solo section she, too, avoids Oistrakh's approach, but her alternative - very slow, dream-like, and reflective - has its own expressive power. Her variety and richness of tone are well captured by the recording as well. As Mordkovitch accelerates and builds in intensity toward the finale, you can't tear your ears away. The finale itself, which sounds like Kabalevsky with a migraine, Mordkovitch demonstrates what biting satire means in music. In all, a great performance, without qualifications.
The Second Cto. is a bleaker work that is harder for the listener to absorb. Besides lacking the earlier score's melodic appeal, none of the movements has the strong dramatic contour of Cto. no. 1. We are in a featureless landscape without hope and few markers to show any way out. Too much of the material, as in the quiet opening supported by mumbling basses and cellos, feels like a weaker reprise of the first concerto, poignant but exhausted. However, as with the equally desolate Violin Sonata, if you keep listening this score gets under your skin, because its gestures are strong and sincere. Mordkovitch attacks it with authority and leads the ear from episode to episode in a highly convincing way.
Since this CD sells so cheaply on the used market, it's a must-listen for anyone who loves these two great works, testaments to a suffering composer rising above a terrifying world.