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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (1933) [20:26]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102* (1957)
Concertino for two pianos, Op. 94 (1953) [8:53]
Tarantella for two pianos [1:21]
Anna Vinnitskaya, Ivan Rudin (pianos); Tobias Willner (trumpet)
Kremerata Baltica, Winds of Staatskapelle Dresden/*Omer Meir Wellber
rec. 2014, Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber, Dresden, Germany
Reviewed as a 24/48 download
Pdf booklet included
ALPHA 203 [49:51]

I’ve been inordinately fond of these concertos ever since I heard the classic Previn and Bernstein’s performances from the 1960s (CBS/Sony). Granted, they sound their age now, but I never tire of those artists' scintillating way with these works. Even more impressive – and in much better sound – is CfP’s recording with Dmitri Alexeev, Jerzy Maksymiuk and the English Chamber Orchestra; that’s coupled with a rousing performance of The Assault on Beautiful Gorky, from The Unforgettable Year 1919 (review). The fillers on this new Alpha release won’t blister paint at thirty paces, but they’re fine examples of Shostakovich at his most easeful and engaging.

The Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, who also directs Op. 35 from the keyboard, is new to me. According to the liner-notes she played these concertos at the 2014 International Shostakovich Festival, set up by the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2010. The Concertino for Two Pianos was written for the composer’s fifteen-year-old son Maxim, who premiered it with a fellow student at the Moscow Central School of Music in 1953. It’s a delightful curiosity that’s easy on the ear, if not on the fingers; ditto the Tarantella from the 1955 film The Gadfly.

Given the success of Vinnitskaya’s Dresden concert it’s hardly surprising that the orchestra involved – made up of the Kremerata Baltica and the winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden – are retained for this recording. Seconds into the first concerto, for piano, strings and trumpet, and it’s clear that Vinnitskaya has the piece in her blood. Her bright, cleanly articulated pianism is just right for this highly animated Allegretto, although some may find Tobias Willner’s trumpet a little too distant at times. That said, the piano and strings are well caught and the sound is full and detailed.

The Lento is wonderfully inward, and the lower strings have a richness and body that one seldom encounters in this piece. Vinnitskaya’s gentle, pensive playing is a joy to hear, and as a conductor she scales the concerto’s dynamics far more effectively than Gergiev does in his Mariinsky recording with Denis Matsuev (review). Indeed, the latter’s one of the most garish and ill-judged performances of the piece I’ve ever heard. Admittedly the playing of Vinnitskaya’s band is far from flawless – a consequence of being directed from the keyboard, perhaps – but that hardly matters when the performance is this beguiling.

The brief Moderato seems darker than usual, but Vinnitskaya’s mercurial playing in the Allegro con brio soon lights up the gloom. I do wish the trumpet had greater presence; also, Willner is a tad tremulous at times. As excitable as he and Vinnitskaya undoubtedly are in the closing bars they do at least avoid the self-seeking crudities that ruin Gergiev and Matsuev’s finale. I still prefer Alexeev and Maksymiuk in this concerto; indeed, that version has the exhilarating edge and unfettered energy that rivals would kill for. Oh, and Philip Jones’s trumpet playing (he of PJBE) is as thrilling as it gets.

Conductor Omer Meir Wellber directs a lively performance of the second concerto, which was also written for and premiered by Maxim. Wellber’s presence is felt in the taut orchestral playing and a consistency of purpose. Vinnitskaya is fearless in the Allegro and the Dresden winds add extra warmth to the proceedings. The Andante isn’t as seamless as some, but it has a chamber-like transparency that I like very much indeed. In fact I can’t recall a lovelier account of this movement, or a livelier one of the next. Vinnitskaya’s pin-sharp pianism is very impressive, although dynamic gradients are a tad precipitous at times.

Her performance of the second concerto is the more satisfying of the two, not least because she can focus on what she does best – playing the piano. Ivan Rudin joins her in the Concertino, a piece that the Bizjaks – Lidija and Sanja – included in their recent collection of two-piano pieces (review). The sisters shape and animate the music more persuasively than Vinnitskaya and Rudin; still, there’s no denying the latter’s rhythmic verve, both here and in the tiny Tarantella that follows.

This is a most enjoyable album, even if the performances don’t supplant the best in the catalogue. Vicky Yannoula and Jakob Fichert’s accounts of the Concertino and Tarantella certainly qualify (review). As for Tobias Niederschlag’s liner-notes they’re adequate but not always accurate. For instance Maxim was fifteen when he premiered the Concertino, not ten; also, just under 50 minutes of music seems a little parsimonious. However, none of this diminishes Vinnitskaya’s achievements here; in fact I'd be very happy to hear her in other concertos - Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Khachaturian especially.

An entertaining collection, nicely played and recorded; Vinnitskaya is a pianist to watch.

Dan Morgan



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