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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto for Piano, trumpet and String Orchestra No.1 Op.35 in C minor (1933) [23:19]
Suite from Hamlet Op.32a (1932) [24:19]
Piano Concerto No.2 Op.102 in F major (1957) [22:31]
Valentina Igoshina (piano); Thomas Hammes (trumpet)
Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss/Lavard Skou-Larsen
rec. Festhalle Viersen, Germany, 11-13 October 2010
CPO 777 750-2 [70:19]

Experience Classicsonline

For CPO this disc represents a voyage into the rare territory of near-standard repertoire. Given their deserved success championing the deeply obscure there must be significant reasons for changing a business model that has worked so well. Good though these performances are I am not sure they are so special to command such a change of tack.
Of the six Shostakovich concertos the two for piano represent some of his simplest - in the best sense - and most abstract come absolute music. There is none of the biographical or subjective associations that haunt the four string works. The Piano Concerto No.1, together with the Symphony No.1, remains the most popular and regularly programmed - on disc and in concert - of Shostakovich’s early work. Checking the Opus numbers shows that it was written in the middle of a busy period producing music for stage and screen. Shostakovich was still very much the darling of the Soviet establishment and this is reflected in a score that is quirky, sombre, riotous and colourful by turns. There are none of the sour tragedy-haunted passages that stalk the main works post the “muddle instead of music” denouncement a few years in the future. This was one of the works Decca included on their “The Jazz Album” from Riccardo Chailly with the pianist Ronald Brautigam accompanied by the Concertgebouw Orchestra. That is a smashing performance and a thoroughly enjoyable disc but this work has nothing to do with jazz. Burlesque, cabaret and a Keystone Cop-esque madcap humour for sure.

An interesting aspect the performance here underlines is a certain neo-classicism which I must admit have never struck me before. This CPO performance has many virtues - the greatest of these is the coolly clean and articulate technique of both pianist Valentina Igoshina and the orchestra - the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss. All the players perform with a super-neat virtuosity which allied to a vibrant energy makes these hugely impressive performances. Igoshina’s technique and approach is focused on producing a performance (of both concertos) that is more emotionally detached than is often heard. The more I listened to these performances the more I felt this was a very valid and convincing approach. The first concerto in particular does require virtuosity but emotionally both works rather flag if over-weighted with ‘feeling’. I am not sure I have ever heard the slow movement of the lovely second concerto played with such serene grace or simplicity. The excellent CPO recording helps greatly throughout but especially here where the orchestral strings float the gentlest bed of lyrical support over which the piano quietly muses. The music feels more poignant and affecting for the purity of its utterance.

Returning to the first concerto there is - of course - a co-conspirator in Shostakovich’s subversive entertainment; the solo trumpet. Here it is Thomas Hammes, the principal trumpet of the Stuttgart RSO. He is predictably excellent with technique to spare, but crucially I find the personality of his contribution lacking. In my mind’s ear the function of the trumpet in this work is to comment - usually ironically - on the other music. To this end I find Hammes simply too straight - take the popular tune given to the trumpet in the final movement (track 4 approximately 3:00) - here it is played with an almost classical correctness which seems totally at odds with the music around it. Just a minute or so earlier the players have brilliantly brought off one of Shostakovich’s quirkiest effects which always sounds to me as if the speed of the playback machine is being increased - after that tour de force Hammes’ ‘little tune’ falls flat like a dull joke. The second concerto was written for the composer’s son Maxim to perform. How brilliant of Shostakovich to avoid any temptation to - in the modern parlance - dumb-down his music. So what we have here is simple without being simplistic and transparent without lacking musical weight. As mentioned before Igoshina pitches her performance to perfection feeling no need to over-interpret. She allows the music to speak for itself and as such it emerges as one of the composer’s consistently happiest and good-natured works - this is a delightful performance from chirpy beginning to rumbustious end.
All the music on this disc benefits from the chamber scale of the orchestra; just seven first violins and five seconds for example, particularly when performed with the panache they do here. I so enjoy Igoshina’s objective approach that when she does pull the tempo around as in a rather fussy take on the 2nd concerto’s first movement cadenza it rather jars but overall her playing is very impressive indeed. The coupling of these two works on CD always leaves room for a filler - which may determine which of many fine versions the collector will buy. Here with have a relative rarity - the suite of incidental music from the 1932 stage production of Hamlet. This is not to be confused with one of Shostakovich’s greatest film scores - the 1963 Hamlet Op.116. The stage Hamlet shares with the other early incidental music scores a kaleidoscopic variety of moods from dramatic to wildly comic to powerfully serious. I say relatively rare because the complete score was available on Cala performed by Mark Elder and the CBSO and the same suite as here on Olympia from Eduard Serov and the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra. There is a current competitor in the catalogue couple with the 15th Symphony from Pletnev on Pentatone. I have not heard the latter and the comparison with Elder is not that valid given the different music. Curiously, the very clarity and control that so benefits the concerti makes the German orchestra sound rather prim compared to the gaudy grease paint of their Soviet rivals on Olympia. Again the CPO recording scores full marks for balance, detail and warmth and the playing is a miracle of accuracy - track 8 ‘The Hunt’ is sparklingly brilliant. The liner calls this suite the ‘Original Version 1932’ but I do not have a clue what that means since I am not aware there is any other possible version!
On the matter of the liner; one rarely sits down with a CPO liner for a jolly good read. Even by their own stodgy and lumpen standards this is a very poorly translated booklet. Inverted commas are (mis)used with spectacular frequency. They don’t get off to a good start; ‘Shostakovich, the genial Russian composer from St. Petersburg’. I am not sure I have every heard him described as “genial”. On the first page alone quotation marks are used eight times - incorrectly in every case. But to dwell on those minor annoyances would be to diminish the qualities of this fine disc. You do have to return to my initial question; why did CPO choose to release this into an already crowded market? At the upper mid-price price point the competition is very strong indeed and for all its merits I am not sure I could direct collectors to this version at this price before all others but with its interesting coupling and persuasively lucid approach I could imagine there being many satisfied purchasers.
Nick Barnard



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