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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Dances of the Dolls (1952) [11:22]
Ten Aphorisms, op.13 (1927) [14:11]
Piano Sonata No.1, op.12 (1926) [12:50]
Piano Sonata No.2, op.61 (1942) [28:28]
Melvin Chen (piano)
rec. 21-23 June 2006, Sosnoff Theatre, Richard B Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. DDD
BRIDGE 9238 [67:17]
Experience Classicsonline

Shostakovich’s crowning achievement for his own instrument is the set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87 (1950/1951). This work has tended to make us forget that his substantial piano output stretches across his career from the Eight Preludes, op.2 (1919/1920) to the Eleven Variations on a Theme by Glinka, op.104a (1957). This collection, therefore, is most welcome.

We start with the Dances of the Dolls, which, although the music is pure Shostakovich, consists of arrangements of pieces from his Ballet Suites. These were, in turn, compilations of arrangements from ballet, film and theatre scores, made by Levon Atovm'yan. They establish a most pleasant and innocent world. These are delightful pieces and reasonably easy – I once played Petite Ballerina (no.5) albeit without the clarity and accuracy of Mr Chen.
The delightful mood is quickly dispelled by the first Aphorism. Here is Shostakovich the avant–gardist. The composer spent the 1920s in musical experimentation and the decade culminated in the satirical opera The Nose. Each piece has its own title and character. Ronald Stevenson has even suggested that the Nocturne might be concerned with things which go on during the night – such as hoch magandy – although I doubt that Shostakovich had this in mind when composing the piece. What can be said is that these are very disturbing, and disturbed, pieces. Too short to outstay their welcome but long enough to get under the skin and unnerve you. Even the final Lullaby is disquieting, never settling into the gentle bedtime song it is supposed to be.
The 1st Sonata predates the Aphorisms by only a few months. It is an insane, cataclysmic, kaleidoscopic turmoil of a piece. By the side of this work the Aphorisms are quite Chopinesque! This is no mere puff for a piece seldom heard. In one movement in three sections, and playing for less time than the finale of the 2nd Sonata, it makes its mark with music of great violence and aggressive gestures. Again, this is Shostakovich the experimenter, the mad professor. There’s reminiscences of late Scriabin, Mossolov and even Roslavets, though taken to extremes. The middle, slow, section offers some respite, but it’s all quickly dispelled by the vigorous finale, which barely gets going before being snuffed out unceremoniously.
The 2nd Sonata is a very mature work. Written midway between the two Zhdanov purges (1936 and 1948) there might be some who see this work as Shostakovich “watering down” his style so as to be more acceptable to the State. Gone is the angry young man, gone is the aggression. In comes a warmer atmosphere, and a more easy-going temperament. But the mere fact that he is writing a work as classical as a Sonata shows his strength of character for such a work could have brought calls of formalism for using decadent, not proletariat-friendly, means of composition. There is much to admire in this work. The first movement has two themes, one a sinuous idea which reminds me of flowing water, and the other a more angular statement. The ideas are developed briefly and the recapitulation uses the extremes of the keyboard and bitonality - so not all of the young man’s experiments are lost to us. The slow movement, Largo, is another of those Shostakovich slow movements where the music is pared to the bone. There’s little movement and even less friendliness. The finale is a set of nine variations on a simple, original, theme, which cover a variety of moods and emotions, ending with a subdued return to the music of the opening, accompanying the theme of the variations.
Chen is a fine pianist. He gives marvellous performances of all the works here recorded and doesn’t hold back when the music demands some power. He also has ample reserves of tenderness and poetry. This disk is, by turns, edifying, enlightening, terrifying and entertaining.
Bob Briggs



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