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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor Op. 35 (1933) [22.14]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major Op. 102 (1957) [19.16]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b.1932)

Piano Concerto No. 2 (1966) [21.26]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Rec. Caird Hall, Dundee, 31 Mar - 1 Apr 2003. DDD
HYPERION CDA67425 [63.13]


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While Litton’s Shostakovich on Dorian and Delos has come in for critical ‘stick’ his way with the strings especially in weighting and voicing moments of trembling expectancy and loneliness is completely convincing. Hamelin too approaches this music as if it is intrinsically of value rather than an amusing excrescence out of the main run of the symphonies. This he does despite Shostakovich’s evident intentions to entertain and not challenge unduly. Imagine if there had been a third concerto written in the mid-1960s with a surly depressive-introspective character? It could have happened but we only have these two concertos which although having their moments of reflection seem relaxed beside the quartets and symphonies and even beside the cello concertos and violin concertos. They stand closer to the suites, film scores, ballets and theatre music - even there they are not completely birds of a feather.

Hamelin is not content to leave it there though. In some senses he and Litton make the two concertos anew. The First Concerto which to me has always stood a dismally poor fourth place to the Second’s first place is most sensitively imagined. I have already commented on the snowy remoteness of the violins in the first movement but in the second the remote trumpet croons in a way I have never heard achieved before. The momentary third movement makes little impression but the finale with its Respighian ‘circus ring’ role for the trumpet is as sprightly and brisk as you could wish though without the rough edge of the Previn/Vacchiano version on Sony. Trumpeter William O’Keeffe makes an ‘event’ out of his role with every droop and impudence of his role savoured. There is nothing at all routine about this. I dreaded hearing the First Concerto but actually enjoyed this!

Back onto secure ground and we come to the Second Concerto. This work pays its dues to the Soviet-compliant genre of the life-enhancing ‘Youth’ concerto. Kabalevsky wrote four of these for the piano. None of those has had quite the success of the Shostakovich even if the composer was ‘slumming it’. In the case of this concerto my reference is the Sony version directed and played by Bernstein. I have loved this since being introduced to the work through an SBRG prefix CBS LP ‘played to death’ to me at our digs in Bristol in 1971-3. Here the high excitement of the squealing Scottish woodwind make something special of the rattling mettlesome outer movements. The plangently romantic middle movement is given a grave rather than sweetened twist which some may regret. I refuse to let go of my Bernstein recommendation but if you want non-pareil sound and a stunning performance then this is now the place to go.

Looking back over the various versions you will find much to enjoy in the playing of Dimitri Alexeev (CFP), Marshev (Danacord) and Eugene List (BMG) and Ortiz (EMI). I have not heard the versions by Ogdon, Rudy or Leonskaja although they have been well received. The composer’s and his son’s versions are hors de combat and in a special authoritative category.

Rather than reaching towards the films to find other Shostakovich for piano and orchestra Hyperion try out some Rodion Shchedrin, a piano pupil of Yakov Flier and composition student of Yuri Shaporin (come on Hyperion - how about giving us Shaporin’s 1933 symphony!). There are six piano concertos the latest of which was played at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in August 2003. The Second Piano Concerto was premiered by the composer with Rozhdestvensky conducting. It was toured throughout Europe with the Leningrad Phil and Mravinsky in 1966. This comes as an icy douche after the two Shostakovich concertos. The piano seems to move threateningly closer to the listener.

I reviewed a valuable though now deleted BMG disc (BMG-Melodiya 74321 36907-2) of the first three Shchedrin piano concertos in 1998. This involved the composer as soloist and the USSRSO conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. The recordings were inscribed live at a single concert on 5 May 1974 at the Grand Hall, of the Moscow Conservatoire. In 1998 I described the concerto as ‘densely atonal but [with] interest … kept alive by some explosive and seethingly active textures’. This remains the effect but now presented to us in the best of digital sound. Hamelin splashes and smashes is way through the thickets and surprises us with the jazzy Lionel Hampton sophistication of the writing in the finale. The three movements are Dialogues, Improvisations and Contrasts.

For a group of Shchedrin reviews see:-

musicweb\music\classrev\jan99\shchedrin.htm

The only debit with adding the Shchedrin is the disorientation a listener who loves the Shostakovich pair may suffer as a result of the shocking stylistic gear-change. Going by the Second Cello Concerto the Shchedrin is perhaps the way an early 1970s Shostakovich piano concerto might have sounded if the genre had not become ‘soiled goods’ to this most fastidious of composers. The cocktail bar jazz of the last movement does not however sit well with my supposed Shostakovich ‘photo-fit’.

Into the bargain Hyperion have added David Fanning’s expert commentary rich in incident and allusion and completely free of the technical obfuscation.

Hyperion may well find this CD sells just as well as their Hildegard of Bingen disc. If so I hope that it augurs well for a series of Soviet piano concertos. For a start let’s have the two piano concertos of Ivan Dzerzhinsky.

Rob Barnett

 



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