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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet, Op. 57 (1940) [34:08]
24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932) [38:36]
Michail Lifits (piano)
Szymanowski Quartet
rec. December 2015, June 2016, Sendesaal Bremen, Germany
DECCA 481 4842 [72:44]

Michail Lifits and the Szymanowski Quartet excel in their performance of Shostakovich’s moody masterpiece. The Prelude really sings, and it also sears in intensity. The pianissimo playing at the end of the fugue is exquisite. The scherzo dances with manic energy. The finale is a joy, moving from strutting majesty in the march, which begins about a minute into the movemen,t to quiet whimsy at the end. Only in the intermezzo did I wonder if the playing might be perhaps too beautiful, but learned that it was not as the players turned that beauty into a song of desolation and loneliness. The Szymanowski Quartet plays at top form, capturing the work’s constantly shifting moods. Their performance is brilliant, as good as any and better than most.

Most recordings of the Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet are filled out by one of his string quartets, saying goodbye to the pianist. Instead, Decca pairs the quintet with a keyboard work, demonstrating great confidence in the young Russian pianist, Michail Lifits. Lifits has broad musical interests. His Mozart has been well received, and he has also recorded Schubert, and Violin Sonatas by Grieg and Strauss with Vilde Frang.

Shostakovich composed the 24 Preludes, Op. 34 after completing his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Shostakovich created music of great diversity, which has the superficial flavor of a casual notebook of musical sketches, although these brief pieces formally follow the circle of fifths through the 24 major and minor keys.

There are over twenty-five recordings of these Preludes, but few by established artists with big careers (Ashkenazy, Nicolaevska, and Mustonen are the exceptions). Most pianists seem to play the work in around thirty minutes. Lifits takes about eight minutes longer. We know that Shostakovich was often indifferent to his own metronome markings, which he sometimes took from the first performer to play a piece. Lifits’ more deliberate tempo choices and deft rubato make other versions seem underplayed. In Lifits’ hands the Preludes seem worldlier, more knowing. Lifits presents us with more than an appealing musical sketchbook, revealing a world of the composer’s moods (from sardonic to resigned), managing to link this early composition to the laconic, spare and enigmatic music of late Shostakovich, where the composer seems alone, yet intensely observant.

We hear echoes of Shostakovich’s musical upbringing, with lots of Chopinesque moments, but also popular tunes including a highly ornamented tango. Lifits carries the listener into these concentrated little pieces. His gentle trilling in No. 10 (Moderato non troppo, in C sharp minor) is beguiling, as is his finger work in No. 5 (Allegro vivace, in D major), a flight-of-the-bumblebee sort of display. Other highlights include the show of power in the middle of No. 14 (Adagio, in E flat minor), and his handling of the child-like, slightly stumbling tune of No. 21 (21 Allegretto poco moderato, in B flat major).

This disc is quite well-recorded, and is recommended both for an outstanding performance of the popular Piano Quintet, but even more for a provocative interpretation of the lesser known Preludes.
Richard Kraus



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