"This music," according to Leila Josefowicz, "is about the strength of the human spirit and its attempt to overcome the harsh realities of living."
On her latest recording, Josefowicz commemorates the centenary of Dmitri Shostakovich's birth with two contrasting works. The First Violin Concerto is a 20th-century masterpiece that shines with optimism as it battles its way to eventual victory. Shostakovich's Violin Sonata is a later work that represents the composer's bitterness after years of working under the repressive Soviet regime.
This is challenging music both for the listener and for the performer. Leila Josefowicz has been playing and studying it for years, but only recently has she felt emotionally prepared to record it. Shostakovich wrote the First Violin Concerto in 1947 for his virtuoso countryman, David Oistrakh. At the time, Josef Stalin had publicly condemned Shostakovich as a counter-revolutionary. The piece had to endure eight years and several revisions before its premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1955. This was a work born out of suffering, yet the overall mood is relatively optimistic and the ending victorious.
For Josefowicz, an understanding of the concerto fell into place when she really started living life and making some big mistakes. She says, "You have to have lived through pain in order to play about it."
Of the four movements that make up this concerto, Josefowicz finds the first movement the most difficult. She says she has to resist the urge to sound too passionate and voluptuous because the music needs to feel like the still of night. This movement, powered by its pace and rhythm, is somewhat haunting yet quite intense. Josefowicz clearly loses herself in the meditative uncertainty. She says so much with the dramatic dynamics, at times the notes trickle from her violin almost whispering the anxious mood as if to keep it secret.
A completely different mood is unleashed in the second movement. While the first movement is all about restraint, the Scherzo really lets loose. Here, the composer opens Pandora's Box and a string of wild emotions fly from Josefowicz's violin bow. The opening melody of the Passacaglia is reminiscent of Darth Vader's march theme in "Star Wars." In those movies, that march symbolizes the totalitarian Galactic Empire. In the third movement of this concerto, that bold entrance seems to represent the government oppression Shostakovich endured at the time he was writing.
A fiercely difficult cadenza leads into the finale. Shostakovich intended it to be an entrance for the soloist, but later scored it for full orchestra after David Oistrakh begged for a moment of respite so he could "wipe the sweat from his brow." As she performs the cadenza with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on this concert recording, Leila Josefowicz is so absorbed her brow is furrowed with intensity. I was on the edge of my seat listening to her launch into the finale where, as she puts it, she "shoots off into the sky!"
While the Violin Concerto was recorded in concert this past January with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sakari Oramo, Shostakovich's Violin Sonata was recorded in studio with Josefowicz's longtime chamber partner John Novacek. This sonata may not be a comfortable listening experience but, according to Novacek, it can be a transforming one. After years of bowing to authoritarian pressures under Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich no longer felt compelled to offer false hope in his late Violin Sonata. In this work, the sparse textures show his bitterness and his obsession with death. In the last movement, however, there are moments of tenderness touched with insanity, and conveyed with great effect by these two performers. They anticipate one another's every move.
The relationship between hardship and musical fulfillment is one that's always fascinated Leila Josefowicz. She says she's inspired by Shostakovich's ability to find something positive in life's ordeals. She shares that inspiration on this new release, and she'll share it again on July 26 when she performs the First Violin Concerto in another celebration of the composer's centennial year, at the BBC Proms in London.