These stock versions of the piano concertos have been
in harness many times over. From the age of the LP through to the compact
disc you would rarely see one without the other. They share an orchestra
and conductor but in the case of the Second Concerto Bernstein could
not resist the dazzling limelight of the solo part while at the same
time holding the ring with the orchestra. Control freak or not he pulled
off the double (the only time it has happened on record?) with resounding
panache and a shower of pianistic sparks. In my experience, and I have
heard quite a few versions of No. 2 (List, Shostakovich, Alexeev - the
latter the best sounding modern-ish version), no-one has equalled Bernstein's
way with the keyboard. Listen to him in the resolve and adrenalin sprint
of the last few minutes of the first movement. He is also generous with
sentiment in the andante. The orchestra set things off adroitly
at the very start with quickly stalking woodwind. The sound is not very
refined and spotlighting is applied liberally by the CBS engineers.
All the same this is, for this reviewer, a rosette recording against
which others must be measured. Play this to those who need to be converted
to classical music. Shostakovich proves that he can write accessibly
and trounce a roomful of Kabalevskys and Khrennikovs at their own Soviet
The other two concertos are polar opposites from each
other in essence and in technology. Both piano concertos were recorded
in the 1960s when the CBS norm in ambient sound was one-dimensional
but vivid to the point of magnesium glare. The Cello Concerto represents
a much better and more natural balance. The First Piano Concerto is
a work of stylistic collage - not completely convincing though brilliant
enough. Julian Haylock, in his well written liner note, reminds us that,
at the time of the premiere, Miaskovsky described the work as 'brilliant
with philistinism'. Certainly the choice of André Previn is apt
given his foothold in Broadway and film. The popular elements of vaudeville
and jazz lie easily under Previn's fingers and Vacchiano lets loose
with fruity lightning-quick satire. I have seen some criticism of the
performance but any roughnesses there may be do not jar.
The Cello Concerto No. 1 from a couple of years after
the Second Piano Concerto could not be more different. It is a harrowing
and earnest work about which there is nothing of the knockabout circus.
Yo-Yo Ma and Ormandy (in his last years) give a performance of considerable
concentration. Theirs is a very cold world but even so my recollection
of another recording - (CBS, I think) - one by Khomitser is that more
could have been extracted from its pages.
Classic Shostakovich; irresistble in the case of the
populist Second Concerto.