Opus 13: Aphorisms (1927)

Aphorisms, op. 13 (1927)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 1, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.555781)

Following on the heels of the first piano sonata, here is another quarter hour of piano music.  Although Shostakovich speaks the same harmonic language and concocts the same sort of spiny melodies, however, Opus 13 has a very different personality from Opus 12.  Aphorisms is a set of ten miniatures, spare and frequently written with dessicated wit.  But rather than a grab bag of odd musical jokes, its ten segments form a coherent little suite, to my ear more obviously structured than the constantly forward-rushing sonata.  I was surprised, too, by the amount of pathos mixed in with the parody.

Some of the work’s dry humor comes from the inappropriateness of its titles, those of individual pieces as well as that of the whole set:  As “aphorism” implies, each is a pithy musical statement, but rather than imparting wisdom (how could it?) it is cryptic and abstract.  The opening, clipped Recitative leads into a not particularly songful Serenade, full of syncopation and staccato pinpricks.  Next comes a punchier Nocturne, which only resembles night music in the gentle chiming of its final bars.

The ten pieces fit into a fast-slow-fast-slow scheme; following the Nocturne’s lowering of the lights is an affecting, minute-long Elegy.  Perhaps the aptness of the piece’s title is a kind of meta-joke but it’s a moment of earnest contemplation, with a surprising step here and there in the bass line creating a slightly detached mood:

The following Funeral March isn’t a march but something like an illustration of a procession passing by, with a trumpet fanfare figure becoming more insistent and then fading over the course of a minute and a half; the tone is ironic again but the color still dark.

A thirty-second-long, rather tightly wound Etude speeds the set back up, and the Danse Macabre laces the famous, ominous Dies Irae tune into a scurrying, theatrical episode:

The Canon is a jumpy clockwork of angular, staccato gestures; the ninth piece, “Legend”, dials the set back down to a more pensive mood.

In its last and longest segment, the Cradle Song, the irony of Aphorisms‘ misnamed titles becomes darker:  The song, despite its ornamental turns, lacks the reassuring tone of a lullaby, instead building a worried and searching mood over the persistent, restless, two-note rocking of the bass line, until a final soft chord like a clock chime brings the work to an unsettled end.  The music never becomes too outwardly emotive but I’m still surprised at the depth reached here, not least because (despite the Elegy and Funeral March) the music that comes before it would seem to set up a brighter punchline.  It says something about Shostakovich’s worldview, as it comes through in his music — there is humor, there is youthful exuberance (the composer in 1927 was still just 21 years old), but underlying it there is darkness and uncertainty.  It’s tempting to pin this on the historical context of the young USSR in the late twenties, which was in the process of tipping over into outright tragedy, but it’s the universality of that uncertainty that makes the music resonate.


The ten pieces here are built to the same scale as the Three Fantastic Dances and Scherbakov renders the two works similarly, with a Gallic, Satie-appropriate clarity and reserve that contrasts with the excesses he brings to the opus 12 sonata.  There’s no need to pursue the disc as a whole, rather than picking up individual selections as single downloads or via Naxos’ online library, but it’s still adding up to a solid album.

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