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SHOSTAKOVICH. Piano Sonata No 1, Op 12; Piano Sonata No 2, Op 61; Twenty-four Preludes, Op 34; Prelude and Fugue in D minor, Op 87 No 24  . Raymond Clarke (piano) Athene ATH CD18 [DDD] [75' 44"]



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."


David Wright



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 studio.

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.


Paul Conway

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 œuvre 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 Eleventh Symphony.

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!


John Veale




see compilation of reviews here


David Wright



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