Blog / Melissa on Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto

Melissa on Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto

Posted on 6 Jun 2018 by ACO Marketing

ACO cellist Melissa Barnard walking with her instrument.

In an interview for our Concert Program, ACO cellist Melissa Barnard sheds light on the intensity of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto from a player’s perspective.

When Melissa Barnard talks about playing Shostakovich, she describes it as an intense, physical workout. To play this piece, she says, you need strength, stamina and heart. It is full of technical difficulties, powerful, but also requires you to give your whole soul. It is muscular and obsessional, but also intensely expressive.

Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1959, after a period of intense oppression in the Soviet era. He had already lived through two denunciations by Stalin’s government, was sacked from his posts, and for a time wasn’t permitted to publicly create the music he truly believed in, instead having to write music for Soviet films, music full of irony. This concerto however marked a return, after Stalin’s death, to his own truth in music.

“This piece in its arc seems to encompass Shostakovich’s life history and experience,” says Barnard. “It is by no means cathartic though - he had lived through his friends and colleagues being killed, dragged off to labour camps. He lived under constant surveillance and threat  and no official “rehabilitation” could erase such experiences.”

The experience of this oppression is all there in the music, Barnard says. You can feel the cold. You can feel the Soviet world, with his sharp, tight, violent musical language. You can feel the suffering, the paranoia, the yearning sadness.  Yet it is always very controlled, with a glassy, precise clarity.

“Playing Shostakovich feels exhilarating in its intensity. It’s always amazing to play such powerfully direct music. It is as if you begin to feel everything that he lived through. He expresses so much, and the piece is very much a world of its own. It reveals the weight of his, and Russia’s, history and also transcends it”

Our long time musical friend Steven Isserlis will take on the monumental concerto on a tour with the ACO later this month, stopping in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide before concluding in Sydney. Tickets via the link below.

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Note - This is an excerpt from a longer piece in our Concert Program. The full program willl be uploaded to our website at least one week prior to the first performance.