This disc is an absolute winner, a real cracker.
I have heard Shostakovich played by a myriad of pianists, including the 'famous
names', but, after hearing Raymond Clarke's performances, they can all be
relegated into the second division.
The recording sound is brilliant, close, vibrant and it has a very exciting
attack. The performances are legendary and superlative. I do not want to
hear anyone else play these pieces again. These are the definitive versions.
I hesitate to say any more since I am limited as to what adjectives I can
use to describe that which is of the highest quality.
I do greatly admire his performances of the Twenty-four Preludes.
A very great deal of insight has gone into this reading or, perhaps, the
pianist's instincts are so remarkable that it came naturally to him. He plays
them as a set, a cycle, a unified whole and with the minimum break between
movements and it all gels together perfectly. The tempi are very well-judged.
The fast preludes are fast and enthralling; Shostakovitch's
eccentricities are captivating and wonderfully irrepressible; the slow preludes
never linger or hang around. In fact, it is this admirable belief that music
should always have onward motion that I value in Clarke's performances. I
adore the grotesque Prokofievian Gavotte and how wonderfully Shostakovich
parodies this old French dance form.
He plays the G minor prelude faster than I would wish but, nevertheless,
the performance works very well. The Piano Sonata No 1 splendidly
captures the turmoil of this incredible score and yet the nervous excitement
and expectancy remains. Written when the composer was just out of his teens
it is clearly a young man's work. He is out to impress and find his own style
and, consequently, uses several. I do admire his non-conformity and his courage
to be a recusant. At times, the music is red hot, almost enraged. By contrast,
the thoughtful passages are equally interesting.
Seventeen years passed before the Piano Sonata No 2 appeared in 1943.
The opening allegretto is played briskly and all the ambiguous tonalities
are brought out. This Sonata may not be wild as the first one is but
it has tremendous strengths; it also has a few banalities but I often wonder
if this is deliberate ... as if Shostakovich was making a protest but may
make it both to be too long and tenaciously. He does the same in the opening
movement of the Symphony No 7 with its march theme over a type of
Ravelian Bolero accompaniment.
The second movement hints at Prokofiev's sardonic style and is a
largo. Its 'sharp corners' and sinister bass line are magnificently
captured in this truly unique performance. I have always thought of this
anomalous movement as Shostakovich's self-reproach. It seems introspective
and, perhaps, inspired by the weariness of the Second World War ... the weariness
that pervades his final works particularly the String Quartet No 15 in
E flat minor of 1974.
The finale is a passacaglia in which the extended theme is first heard
in the right hand and what a catchy, easy to remember theme it is. It has
a beauty and serenity that has to be heard to be believed, a performance
beyond praise. There follows eleven variations and how remarkably Clarke
reveals them; some of his nuances are ravishing in tone; his fingerwork,
particularly in the staccato passages, is exemplary. His characterisation
of each variation shows an uncanny insight and, with the score before me,
all I can do is simply marvel at his all-round and unsurpassed abilities.
The poignant adagio section may be too slow for some but, as with
Beethoven, Shostakovich's metronome markings were suspect but Clarke does
achieve the double-dotted rhythms to great and telling effect!
The Prelude and Fugue in D minor ends this impressive disc. I do not
wish to sound feebly humorous but the Prelude is played so lovingly
and sensitively that it is a complete revelation. The Fugue is not
a big enough contrast to the Prelude, in my view. Shostakovich should
have been more innovative. But the clarity of the playing is memorable.
I cannot evince the quality of this disc. All I can do is quote the Swiss
composer Frank Martin when he said, "Some music and performances are far
beyond what words can ever convey."
and another view from Paul Conway
This is a superbly played and intelligently planned disc which should bring
pleasure to all lovers of the music of Shostakovitch and admirers of fine
pianism. The soloist constantly strikes the right balance between irony and
deeply felt emotion in these bittersweet performances. Raymond Clarke's
breathtaking technique is absolutely at the service of the music.
The CD gets off to a flying start with the 24 Preludes op34, hugely enjoyable
miniatures which contain the very essence of Shostakovitch and capture the
composer's full expressive range from the simple and affecting (nos. 1and
11) to the heartfelt and sombre (nos. 14, 17 and 22); from the brilliant
(nos. 9 and 20) to the quirky and sardonic (nos. 15 and 24). All these moods
are captured perfectly in these exquisite readings which unselfconsciously
present us with scrupulous attention to details of the score with the added
bonus of characterful playing.
The Piano Sonata no 1 (1926) is a compact and intense one-movement piece
which tests the musicianship and the technique of any soloist. Raymond Clarke
attacks the work to the manner born but always responds to the more lyrical
moments. This is musicianship with heart rarely encountered in the recording
The Second Piano Sonata of 1943 is more complex and problematic than its
hearty predecessor. Its intended moments of banality conceal deeper feelings
which only surface towards the end of the final passacaglia third movement.
At this point the soloist achieves playing of melting beauty tinged with
such wistful sadness that the effect is almost unbearably moving. This may
well be the most rewarding performance on the CD, the sonata's every ambiguity
sensitively explored without descending to bathos or crude parody.
After this substantial work the disc concludes with the last of Shostakovitch's
24 Preludes and Fugues of 1951. In this context the piece makes a worthy
epilogue to the CD, the commanding dynamism of the concluding Fugue tempered
by the memory of the immaculately poised playing of the Prelude.
The recording (in the Djanogly Recital Hall of Nottingham University) is
exemplary and allows the full expressive range of the soloist to shine through,
every nuance faithfully caught but never in a clinical fashion. In short,
the recording matches the piano playing on this CD: natural, well balanced
and completely at the service of the composer. As if the playing were not
enough Raymond Clarke himself provides extensive and thought-provoking notes
for the booklet accompanying the disc as well. This could be my disc of the
month - you will have to go far to find more characterful playing demonstrating
such consummate musicianship.
and another view from John Veale
Hearing this CD reminded me that just before my one and only all-to brief
encounter with Shostakovich, newly resplendent in his Oxford University Honorary
Doctorate regalia at the post-Encænia bash in 1958, I took the anxious
precaution of asking Isaiah Berlin whether talking music or studiously avoiding
doing so would be best calculated to oil the conversational wheels with this
famously tense and nervous composer. Berlin unhesitatingly recommended the
former approach as the way to open him up.
So I weighed almost straight in, asking him why he had scored that four-square
4/4 folk tune in the second movement of his First Symphony (fig. 6,
bar 2) in 3/4 even though he switched to 4/4 for the tutti repeat (fig. 21).
He knitted his brow for a moment or two and then, with a shrug, said 'I forget',
thus leaving this minor but intriguing enigma unresolved. It seemed in its
small way symbolic - but of what?
The real enigma, however, is best exemplified by the undoubted excellence
of the tautly structured, disciplined Fifth Symphony, notwithstanding
that notorious epigraph at its head: 'A Soviet artist's answer to just criticism'
(pointedly omitted from the Boosey & Hawkes edition, no doubt to spare
the Pavlovian embarrassment of the Western liberal intelligentsia). It, of
course, looks even more cravenly servile following so closely on the heels
of the anarchically capricious Fourth Symphony - the first performance
of which had been aborted a year earlier, an episode which presaged the
iniquitous Zhdanov inquisition into modern Soviet music in 1948.
But where did the innermost Shostakovich stand? My own hunch has long been
that Solomon Volkov skewed the 'Testimony' (1979) in such a way as to pander
to the received opinions of the Western intelligentsia in representing
Shostakovich as an out-and-out dissident at heart. But is it not more probable,
life being a continuum, that he vacillated between orthodoxy and apostasy,
like, say, a precariously devout medieval Roman Catholic recoiling at the
horrors, inter alia, of that Inquisition?
In his near-contemporaneous account of the infamous Zhdanov inquisition,
'Musical Uproar in Moscow' (1949), Alexander Werth rightly makes much of
the fact that Shostakovich and his colleagues, Prokofiev among them, were
up against the likes of Fadayev, the notorious alcoholic party hack, and
envious third-rate rivals such as Khrennikov, who were on to a good thing:
so Shostakovich's utterances have to be treated circumspectly. He also reminds
us in his down-to-earth way that Shostakovich and his fellow students have
dabbled in modish Western modernism as exemplified by, for example, Hindermith,
'Les Six' and Alban Berg. My own belief is that Shostakovich, deep down,
was a musical conservative, the uniqueness and originality of whose uvre
were firmly rooted in his infinitely complex psyche, and that even let off
the leash he would never have been tempted by cerebrally contrived technical
innovation such as serialism.
Well, now, musical executants, in contrast to composers, are not all that
often adept with words. But Raymond Clarke is right up there with Berlioz,
Schumann and Wagner when it comes to stylishly lucid prose and I warmly commend
his copious analytical notes to all.
His pianistic technique is both adroit and secure, but it is his insight
and judgement as an interpreter which really gives this invaluable CD its
impressive sense of authenticity, as Clarke picks his way through a veritable
minefield of subtle and hazardous intricacies: the juxtaposing of conventional
harmony and iconoclastic dissonance in the First Piano Sonata, written
when Shostakovich was just twenty years old, a year after that astonishingly
precocious First Symphony; the elusive, sometimes satirical allusions
to his own works and those of other composers in the Second Piano
Sonata; the 'in-jokes' and deliberately 'trivial' passages in the
Twenty-Four Preludes; and the abrupt mood-swings which pervade these
pieces as a whole.
Clarke's sense of structure and development is particularly evident in the
third movement (passacaglia) of the Second Sonata, as the ground bass
changes its shape, in contrast to the ones in the third movement of the
First Violin Concerto and even more so in the fourth movement of the
Eighth Symphony, where it remains doggedly unchanged. Similarly impressive
is his rendering of the fugue in the last of the Twenty-Four Preludes
and Fugues (the only one on this CD), the graceful, relaxing opening
'moderato' of which likewise contrasts diametrically with, for instance,
the furious dramatic intensity of the fugue in the second movement of the
An interesting feature of Shostakovich's music is that the chamber works
are the more idiosyncratic while the symphonic ones tended to follow the
current ukase - the Fourth Symphony being a spectacular exception!
And we should always remember that Shostakovich's monumental musical output
and the tyranny that dogged him were, paradoxically, interlinked products
of the same historical turmoil.
This is indeed a magnificent disc. Buy it!