Shostakovich wrote his First Violin Concerto in 1947-48 while persecuted and bullied by Andrei Zhdanov. The Soviet Central Committee secretary announced his decree on music, condemning formalism and naming Shostakovich specifically, while the composer was writing the Scherzo, imprinted with the jagged musical motif based on his initials, DSCH, used here for the first time. The concerto – written, like the second, for David Oistrakh – wasn’t performed until 1955, once Zhdanov and Stalin were dead.

It is these tensions, fears and anxieties that German violinist Peter Frank Zimmermann brings to the fore in his agonised performances of Shostakovich’s Violin Concertos with the NDR Elbphilharmonie – the renamed NDR Sinfonieorchester – led by Alan Gilbert and recorded live at the Laeiszhalle, Hamburg
in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

In the First Concerto Zimmermann bases his performance of the solo part of the autograph manuscript – which includes Shostakovich’s own metronome marks and bowing instructions – rather than the often heard version edited by Oistrakh. He also uses the composer’s preferred opus number – 77 – in keeping with the work’s date of composition rather than publication. 

Above the restive strings of the opening Nocturne, Zimmermann’s sound has a rich, pained quality – brooding and tenebrous in the low register, spinning, trembling in the high.

Biting interjections disintegrate into flying sparks in the Scherzo, winds gambolling in the background, before the tension is ramped up with driving timpani, the orchestra raring with savage energy under Gilbert’s baton. 

Zimmermann strikes a reflective note in the Passacaglia, his tone softening. The cadenza, forming a bridge between the third and fourth movements, is stretched tight before Zimmermann and the orchestra launch into the bitterly folk-inflected, torrential finale.

The Second Concerto is more sombre, but no less charged. Shostakovich suffered a heart attack in 1966 and by 1967 his compositions showed an increasing preoccupation
with death – the Second Violin Concerto was premiered a month before his devastating Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok.

Zimmermann’s sound is dark and smooth as he traces a path through the shifting counterpoint and slow, agitated currents of the Moderato. He draws out the aching melodies of the second movement, while strings or solo horn move restlessly below. The solo violin lines that open the finale are fragmentary, Zimmermann pushing his tone to mimic the aggressive muted horn before the concerto concludes with wry sarcasm rather than the fierce energy that ended the first. A potent, harrowing disc.