DMITRI SHOSTAKOVITCH began to write his SECOND VIOLONCELLO CONCERTO on 17 March 1966 in Moscow and completed it on April 27 in the Crimean resort town of Yalta. It is assumed that the second movement was conceived first. Intertwined in it sounds the tune of the popular Odessa street song of the 1920s Kupite bubliki („Buy my bread rolls, sir”) and Mstislav Rostropovich, to whom the concerto is dedicated, recollects how the composer played that tune for him on the piano at their reunion on the New Year‘s Eve of 1966. The slow monologue-like first movement was written after Shostakovich received the news of the death of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The two had known each other for years, felt exceptional admiration for each other and shared similar fates – spiritual giants, doomed to live in an atmosphere fraught with constant menace, amid oppressive Soviet reality, enduring severe strictures by official authorities and at the same time enjoying incredible popularity and esteem within a fellowship of kindred spirits.
The Second violoncello concerto and the immediately preceding Eleventh String Quartet marked the beginning of the late creative period of Shostakovich, which can be said to be something of a bridge crossing over to the earlier years of the century, linking the composer‘s world with the atmosphere and mindset of Russia‘s so called Silver age. Alfred Schnittke commented that „…thanks to Shostakovich we are brought into contact with an already bygone world and with people who have departed from us long ago but somehow continue to exist here and now… Here they are: the twenties, and the thirties and the forties, and the fifties and the sixties – all this continues to exist in him – in a reflection. And we sense it.” In the Second Cello Concerto, as well as in his other late works, there are allusions and specific quotations from the music of past epochs. In the first movement one can detect the stylistic and intonational resonance of Mahler, as well as of Modest Mussorgsky, whom Shostakovich profoundly esteemed; and midway into the finale there appears a quote from the opening of Boris Godunov.
The concerto is cast in a somewhat unusual structure and commands no distinct thematic contrasts; rather, there is an opposition of diverse transformations of the same subjects, altered in an astounding way beyond recognition. Discernible in the texture of the work is also the musical monogram of Shostakovich familiar from many other of the composer‘s works – DSCH – which uses the tonal equivalent of the composer‘s initials D – Es – C – H, standing in German system for D – E-flat – C – B. Also discernible is a descending whole note scale, which in Russian music tradition is always the vehicle of afterlife symbolism.
Many contemporaries have accepted this concert as the most faithful and vivid expression of the absurdity of the reality of the day. From the lugubrious opening monologue, through the outrageously grotesque motives, the intertwining „masque-themes“, the stringent „cries” of the wind instruments, as well as the symbolic accompaniment to the solo instrument by way of intrusive drum taps and up to the hushed solitary finale of the violoncello – all this serves to unfold an expressive and seemingly unreal picture of reminiscences and visions – which is at the same time so realistic…
The Second Violoncello Concerto was played for the first time in the performance of Mstislav Rostropovich and the State Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yevgeny Svyetlanov in the Bolshoi Zal (the ‚Great Hall‘) of the Moscow Conservatory on 25 September 1966, at the celebration of Shostakovich’s sixtieth anniversary. Just a few days later, on October 5, Rostropovich played the concerto in London‘s Royal Festival Hall with the BBC Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis and proceeded with the American premiere in New York‘s Carnegie Hall on 26 tfebruary 1967, which he realized together with the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky.