Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Concerto No. 1 for Piano Trumpet and Strings Op 35 (1933) [22.51]
Piano Concerto No. 2 Op 102 (1957) [18.51]
Piano Quintet in G minor Op 57 (1940) [34.07]
Martin Helmchen (piano), Paul Beniston (trumpet), Pieter Schoeman (violin), Vesselin Gellev (violin), Alexander Zemtsov (viola), Kristina Blaumane (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, 23 April 2008 and 25 April 2009 (1-2); Henry Wood Hall, 23-25 June 2010 (Piano Quintet)
Shostakovich was an accomplished concert pianist and wrote the first of his piano concertos as a virtuoso performance vehicle for himself. It is scored for piano, trumpet and strings. While the trumpet has an important role, it is very much subsidiary to the piano, although it assumes more prominence in the finale. The concerto has much of the biting, caustic wit of Shostakovich with the trumpet making sardonic interjections throughout.
The concerto recordings in this disc were taken down live in the Festival Hall over two successive years. Martin Helmchen, who is a former winner of the Clara Haskil International Piano competition, does a good job with the concertos. He adopts a hard, dry tone for this music which suits this particular composer. The opening of the first concerto is slightly slow and ponderous but both he and the orchestra pick up speed in the ensuing Allegro vivace and he remains fully on top of the difficult passage-work. Paul Beniston also does a good job with the passage work on trumpet and there is good co-ordination between both players and the orchestra.
Beniston dispatches the beautiful solo on muted trumpet at the end of the melancholy second movement. The short third movement has the feel of an improvisation: I thought Helmchen’s phrasing could have been slightly more nuanced and better shaped in this movement - compare Lise de la Salle’s performance. The finale goes at quite a pace with Helmchen’s navigating his way through the treacherous pyrotechnics well and Beniston blasting out trumpet fanfares. I noticed that Helmchen slowed down slightly to manage some of the awkward leaps safely which detracted a little from the momentum and high jinks. On the whole I thought this was a good performance although it didn’t quite catch fire in the same way as Bronfman or Argerich particularly in the last movement.
Shostakovich wrote his second concerto for his son Maxim to play for an audition at the piano class in the Moscow Conservatory. It is scored for full orchestra and piano and is technically less demanding than the first. The thematic material is more immediately appealing. It is one of the composer’s most popular works.
Helmchen takes the first movement at a brisk pace and catches nicely the springy, bouncy quality of the opening. The subsequent double octaves are dispatched with aplomb and there is excellent co-ordination with the orchestra. Helmchen adopts a more romantic tone in the famous slow movement and his playing is very sensitive and expressive. Soloist and orchestra are as one in the opening of the playful final movement with both firing on all cylinders for the exurberant 7/8 final section. Helmchen, however, slows down in the subsequent 2/4 section - which is not marked in the score - and this detracts from the momentum and carefree abandon. He and the orchestra pick up pace again and the piece ends triumphantly. Overall, I thought this was again a very good performance although not quite as good as Alexeev’s famous recording on CFP.
The final piece is the Piano quintet which Helmchen plays with leading members of the LPO. Shostakovich was a great admirer of Bach’s music and this may have prompted him to begin the work with a prelude and fugue. Helmchen injects the opening prelude with dramatic intensity and there is a warm and equally intense response in the strings. The quintet work well together in managing the changing moods and tone colours of the first movement. The long, slow fugue, which is a homage both to Bach and the late works of Beethoven, is at the heart of the work. This could have been clearer both in voicing and in the balance between the instruments although Helmchen and the LPO quartet do a good job in delineating the long lines and in maintaining intensity.
The scherzo opens with all the ingredients of upbeat rustic charm that it needs and there is some excellent articulation in the strings and deft exchanges between the players. The opening of the intermezzo was particularly lovely with the violin playing a long melodic line against pizzicato cello. The opening of the last movement has a slightly elusive quality and I was not persuaded the quintet quite nailed it although the martial second subject was played with gusto and panache.
Warm and intense.