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(1906 – 1975)
Complete Works for Two Pianos:-
Concertino for Two Pianos Op.94 (1953) [9:06]
Tarantella for Two Pianos (1953) [1:26]
Merry March for Two Pianos (1949) [1:54]
Suite for Two Pianos Op.6 (1922) [24:27]
Three Fantastic Dances Op.5 (1922) [3:04]
Polka from 'The Golden Age' Op.22 (1930) [1:46]
Sonata No.2 Op.61 (1943) [27:52]
Piotr Laul and Alexander Sandler (pianos)
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church St. Petersburg, Russia, 30 November
– 2 December 2005 (solo piano works – Piotr Laul), 13, 15 April
2006 (two piano works)
NORTHERN FLOWERS NF/PMA9941 [69:50]
Given the popularity of Shostakovich's work it is all the more surprising that the music contained in this programme remains relatively rare especially when it is appealing as it is. And if it is rare how gratifying that the music should be presented in as committed and idiomatic performances as they are here. I have not heard any of the competing versions in the current catalogue none of which exactly duplicate the programme here. The closest appears to be a disc on Dynamic which does include all of the two piano repertoire but substitutes the Sonata here with the early Aphorisms for solo piano and a couple of piano/four hands transcriptions which are fun without being vital to our knowledge of the composer.
The Northern Flowers disc opens with the four original works for two pianos that constitute Shostakovich's entire oeuvre in that genre. Three of the four were written for his children and of those the most substantial is the Concertino Op.94. As with the Piano Concerto No.2 Op.102 this was written for his son Maxim and as the title suggests the bulk of the musical display is given to the first piano – in effect the solo part. Even though this is barely nine minutes in length Shostakovich crams it with a full yet condensed continuous three movement form. Relatively minor though it may be there are musical finger-prints aplenty. It really is a marvellous work, charming, profound, witty and moving in turn yet perfectly attuned to the abilities and requirements of its debutant performer(s). Try the three little orthodox chant-like chorales that recur throughout the work providing moments of still reflection in the midst of otherwise romping good humour – beautifully played here with perfect poise. Is it too much to hear these as 'memento mori'? This work does bear the opus number immediately after the Symphony No.10 with its raging against the Stalinist regime just passed. Throughout the pianists here – as in the whole programme – have the full measure of this work both technically and musically.
The liner-note stresses that Shostakovich, in his role as a first class pianist himself, valued clarity and articulacy above all else and certainly these values are repeated by Sandler and Laul. They are helped by a recording that is close and bright. The benefits are that every detail is laid bare although this does come at the expense of some warmth and any sense of the acoustic of the recording venue. Interestingly this is the same church that Northern Flowers used for their 'Wartime Music' series with a full orchestra with vastly different sonic results. Although ultimately I feel this 'bright lights' engineering is suited to the music I would have preferred something with a little more depth around it. In the passages of typically Shostakovichian nightmare – track 1 around 5:00 - the effect is suitably exciting and characterful. In the more romantic lyrical passages – Nocturne from Suite for Two Pianos Op.6 [track 6] - the music is less well served. Mentioning the Suite, it is in many ways the most fascinating and probably least well known of the music here. Shostakovich was just sixteen when he wrote this as a memorial to his recently deceased father. For sure it does not show the mature originality of the Symphony No.1 only two years away but it is still a remarkably accomplished composition. Given that it is four movements following a traditional opening (actually called Prelude), Scherzo, slow movement (Nocturne), and Finale it could be argued that this is an early symphony in all but name. Rightly though Shostakovich chose the name ‘suite’ since the movements lack the thematic and emotional coherence and unity evinced in works but a few years in the future. Even so, there are many fascinating pre-echoes of masterpieces to come. At the same time his debt to the piano writing of the likes of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin are nowhere else so clear. For anyone with any kind of abiding interest in this composer this makes for fascinating listening. The music lies so clearly on the cusp between emulation and originality. Again all credit to the performers for playing it here with total dedication. They make no attempt to smooth any of the music's rougher corners and I'm sure this is the absolutely right choice. Try the aforementioned Nocturne [track 6] - it has a lyrical melodic sweep quite unlike any other Shostakovich I know. It teeters on the edge of sentimental but the players here play it with marvellous unashamed passion that it is impossible not to be thoroughly convinced. The other two works for the pair of pianos are delightful fragments of home music-making for pure pleasure.
Was there any other composer so able to embrace with such sincerity diametrically opposed musical aesthetics? – his 'light' music bubbles with genuine humour and a sense of fun whilst his 'serious' works encompass some of the profoundest musical utterances of the 20th century. If proof were ever needed of this look no further than his various Sonatas for violin, viola, cello and to a lesser degree, the one here for piano. Discounting the earlier agit-prop Sonata No.1 of 1926 it is hard to dismiss the notion that Shostakovich did save his most profound musical insights for his chamber music. The Sonata No.2 dates from 1943 and as with the Suite was written 'in memoriam'. This time it was for his piano teacher and mentor Leonid Nikolaev and was composed after his evacuation from besieged Leningrad when he was convalescing from a bout of typhoid. Although this is still a powerful, substantial and moving work there is a coolness, a detached quality to it which makes one wonder if the illness still cast a pall over Shostakovich's compositional virility. Laurel Fay in her biography relates an anecdote from Marietta Shaginyan – a writer and poetess who corresponded with the composer. On 27 May 1943 – two months after the work's completion - she reported that he had dismissed the Sonata as “a trifle” and was complaining of not being able to compose, yet suffering a headache when he did not. The key though, would seem to be that this work lies between the two huge draining compositions of the Symphony No.7 Op.60 and the Symphony No.8 Op.65. The other intervening opus numbers are for film and functional music with the exception of the Six Romances on Verses by English Poets Op.62. Again, taking on board the injunctions of clarity and articulacy, pianist Piotr Laul plays with superb control and objectivity. I can imagine a performance which might make greater dramatic and emotional contrast at various points, but I think this element of detachment is the truest approach and the one that probably reflects the composer's state of mind at the point of composition most accurately. The Three Fantastic Dances which complete the disc are interesting in that they have more of the mature Shostakovich in them in their brevity than the much more extended Suite but they are not going to be the reason this disc is purchased or not. Collectors will need to decide how much duplication they will wish to have in their collection balanced against the acquisition of 'new' repertoire. On its own terms, and with a little concern for the sound quality which can become fatiguing, I think this is a very recommendable disc with idiomatic and compelling performances.
One last thought, the liner contains a rather splendid typo. In the player's biographies it is explained that they are both graduates of and current teachers at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The senior member is Alexander Sandler who “has educated a constellation of brilliant concretizing musicians”. Given the dark heritage of the Great Terror and the rather mafioso image a 'concretizing musician' conjures I can't help but think the thought might have appealed to Shostakovich's mordant wit so beautifully captured in this programme.
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