Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 35 (1933)
CD: Shostakovich: Piano Concertos No. 1 & No. 2, etc.; Dmitri Alexeev, piano; Philip Jones, trumpet; English Chamber Orchestra; Jerzy Maksymiuk (Classics for Pleasure CD-CFP 4547; rereleased)
The first piano concerto is the subject of the greatest archival footage of Shostakovich that I’m aware of:
That’s the composer playing the concerto’s finale, apparently around 1940, seven years after its premiere. (The video’s uploader provides more details of the performance on YouTube, where the clip has very respectably received some 188,000 views.) I just love Shostakovich’s typically unfussy playing, and his impassive expression and posture — all the experience of his own music’s humor and verve seems to be in his own head.
The first piano concerto is a genuine hit, the first he’d completed since Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, completed all of about six months previously, although the concerto made it out into the world before the opera’s first performance in 1934. The number of works I’ve listened to in between them is a result of their non-chronological opus numbers but it does point to how remarkably prolific Shostakovich was at the time. The concerto is of a piece with his comedic theatrical music of the early thirties, but it’s a sleeker piece with a slightly more classical spirit. Written for piano and string orchestra with an added solo trumpet, it sacrifices some of his style’s chaotic energy for a sense of longer, free-flowing development, which accounts for its easy charisma — it sweeps the listener along in a way that little of his other music so far does.
Like the first symphony, the first piano concerto is a pretty popular work that I’ve contrived never to hear in concert in a decade and a half of fandom, though I’ve gotten to know it well on CD. Riccardo Chailly’s “Jazz Album” (see the Tahiti-Trot) includes a good account with Ronald Brautigam at the piano. I’ve been meaning to check out one of Martha Argerich’s recordings as she’s gotten good reviews but, after all, I’ve set myself to acquiring enough new Shostakovich albums as it is. The present recording on EMI’s budget Classics for Pleasure line is a recommendation from, I think, the Rough Guide to Classical Music circa 1996, and it’s a solid disc. I haven’t listened to it in any detail for a few years and it’s fun to revisit it. I like Alexeev’s fleetness on the keyboard; Jones’ trumpet part can sound a little soggy but he acquits himself well, and the strings sound fine:
That’s a representative swath from early in the first movement. I’m not enough of an armchair musicologist to pick out the allusions to Beethoven, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky that have been noted in the work, but even without getting the musical in-jokes I like the piece’s restless energy and medium-weight drama.
The opening Allegro moderato yields the floor to a lovely second movement, with a particularly lovely opening in the strings and a mood of illustrative, romantic melancholy throughout. It’s reminiscent of the diva’s Adagio from The Golden Age in its cool sentimentality:
The short third movement serves as a ligature between the central romance and the boisterous finale: It opens with clear, palate-cleansing figures in the piano, followed by some minor dramatics. In passing, I note one particular, ripe chordal passage that I remember liking a lot when I was in high school, not that it’s consequential to the work as a whole:
And then, in the last movement, it’s off to the races.
Here the concerto’s infectious energy hits a peak level and stays there for several minutes — it’s a charming work not for the quality of its melodies but for its sheer exuberance. The lowering of the movement’s mood, though it stays punchy, is accomplished with the oft-self-quoted theme that Shostakovich first used in The Golden Age, then recycled into his Poor Columbus add-ons and Declared Dead:
The last minute and a half of the work is covered by the film above, but the antique sound quality doesn’t quite do justice to the galloping energy of the conclusion. And I’m not sure what the provenance is of the melody that bursts out a minute before the end, but I love that last raucous outburst before the trumpet player bugle-calls the concerto to a close over the piano’s thumps.
It’s a work that seems opposed in spirit to the much heavier Lady Macbeth and the fifth symphony of a fews years later, but like both of those works it’s an instance where achieved a more than usually successful, popular work by constraining his early style to a more conventional form. (Compare the dramaturgy of The Nose to Lady Macbeth, and the symphonic structure of the fourth symphony to the fifth’s.) In this case, he combines some of the spirit of his earlier musical gymastics with a cleaner sense of momentum and line and gets a much grabbier result. It’s just tremendously lively, likeable music.