Archive for the ‘Piano’ Category

Opus 35: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1933)

November 5, 2010

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.

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Opus 34: 24 Preludes (1933)

November 3, 2010

24 Preludes, op. 34 (1933)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 1, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.555781)

I’ve taken a bit of a semi-intentional break from last week’s Shostakovich listening, and it’s been good to get clear of the Lady Macbeth-dominated years 1931-1932, not to mention the twelfth symphony.  The twenty-four preludes put me into a completely different headspace.  I don’t know solo piano music well as a genre but I’m increasingly struck by how the instrument is both personal and extroverted.  Certainly it seems to draw a clarity out of Shostakovich, who was an active concert pianist at the time and wrote the preludes for his own repertoire.  It’s good iPod music for walking around town in foggy weather and in an abstract mood, as I was yesterday afternoon on my way to a ballot drop box.

I haven’t known the preludes well before:  Like the other Scherbakov recordings on Naxos that I’ve had for a couple of years, I’ve listened but never really registered.  I know a couple of the more tuneful ones from a violin-and-piano transcription by Dmitry Tsyganov.  They’re half an hour of short pieces, pensive and prickly, just slightly too long on average, I think, to be called miniatures.  They touch the extremes of Shostakovich’s style but compared to the carnival atmosphere of his stage works they’re rather reserved, full of moderatos and allegrettos.  In tone they most closely resemble 1927’s Aphorisms, his previous piano work, but they also point forward to the lucid, middle-period style of his 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, written a quarter of a lifetime later.  Prelude I, above, is one such example; Prelude IV, a fugue itself, is an even more transparent example:

There is plenty of Shostakovich’s spiny humor, too, as in Prelude VI’s wrong-note perkiness.  I don’t have any basis of comparison for Scherbakov’s playing but, as in some of the earlier recordings of his that I’ve surveyed, he plays with a fitting, Erik Satie-like detachment:

The melodic graspability of preludes like that one, and more so XV and XVI, is less a foreshadowing of Shostakovich’s later style than a sign of his increasing willingness in the early 1930s to carry a tune.  It makes his music easier to hang onto but it still works best when it’s somewhat inscrutable:  The auspiciously numbered Prelude XIII, with its droning pulse and slightly pungent harmonies, is the highlight of the set for me.

Prelude XIII gives a good sense of the musical landscape of the whole, a cartoonish one but one overcast with shadows and clouds.  It shares that with Aphorisms but while the earlier work ends on a foreboding note, opus 34’s Prelude XXIV makes a spikier and more energetic finale — not to say a happy one, but one that casts the preceding twenty-three in a more outward-facing and less somber light.  It’s a fine work, one that makes you feel you’re experiencing it at some distance, like watching oddly-shaped fish swim past in an aquarium tank.

Opus 13: Aphorisms (1927)

September 14, 2010

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.

Opus 12: Piano Sonata No. 1 (1926)

September 13, 2010

Piano Sonata no. 1, op. 12 (1926)
CD: Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 1, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.555781)

I listened to the first piano sonata a couple of times, on Friday and again on Sunday morning. This fudges a little bit my declared one-piece-a-day process, although I don’t think it deviates from my intent, i.e. not burning out on Shostakovich and listening through his works in more or less chronological order, without skipping ahead of the piece I want to write about at the moment. Besides, multiple hearings and a weekend to think about it gave me more of a foothold on the sonata than my first impression gave me. In fact, I’ve owned this Scherbakov album for a couple of years, but though I must have listened to the piece since buying it (I’m not the type to buy music and then abandon it on a shelf, neglected and still shrink-wrapped) I found going into it this time that I had absolutely no memory of what it sounded like.

In fact the sonata, although it stands out from Shostakovich’s later, more famous, considerably better known style, doesn’t offer much in the way of melody or obvious structure to grab on to. Following in the path of the Scherzo from Opus 11, he makes a running leap away from the more tradition-bound first symphony into a dissonant, freely developing space — whatever the mood of the music at any given moment, his giddiness at escaping the strictures of his conservatory education beams through. The work is fifteen minutes long and through-composed, though a semblance of a four-movement structure forms out of it: an energetic opening leads into a satirical dance, something like an elephantine polka; an extended, quietly low-rumbling section in the second half leads into a bigger finale. The theme introduced in the first bars is developed throughout and other material appears and mutates as the sonata progresses, but melodic development is submerged below a constantly moving musical surface. Its brashness provides its charm, but it’s not very winsome music, even beyond the fact that it doesn’t try to be pretty: Composers outside of Russia at the time had already walked further away from Romantic, traditionally tonal music (Alban Berg’s landmark atonal opera Wozzeck would appear shortly; in America, Charles Ives, though his work was little known in his lifetime, was already playing with a deeper form of controlled musical anarchy) and in any case Shostakovich’s thrills at rejecting musical tradition seem to me to have faded over the decades, the sonata’s style being a transitional state rather than a viable destination in itself. It’s neither that grabby nor, in the broad view, that far out. It is worth noting that a piece like the first sonata was publishable in the Soviet Union of the time — the concept of an acceptable, non-“formalist” musical art accessible to the working-class masses had not yet congealed, nor had the arbiters within the Soviet bureaucracy begun to insist, as they would with varying degrees of aggression over the following decades, on a thoroughly conservative musical language. But although I like the piece as an expression of the energy and possibilities of the young Shostakovich I don’t find it too appealing otherwise.  I will guess that it’s more fun in concert, when all the clanging around on the piano (especially at the low end) would have more of an effect acoustically and the moment-to-moment surface of the music would feel more immediate.

A couple of stray notes on the music: On my second pass through the music I noticed that the shape of the first eight notes of the main theme — an upward jump, descending triplet, another upward leap, a short drop-off —

— bears a passing but (I have to presume) completely coincidental resemblance to the wider-intervalled and more heroic title theme John Williams used fifty years later in his Star Wars score (about 0:15 to 0:20 in the famous title crawl, after the fanfare). I find this connection both meaningless and, once I’ve heard it, impossible to shake.

Also — although I won’t jump ahead in my listening to verify this, since it would certainly violate my artificially cultivated, chronological context for hearing Shostakovich’s music — a downward-running figure appears within the dance-like segment of the sonata which is, I think, reproduced more or less verbatim by the soloist in one of Shostakovich’s cello concertos:

At risk of seeming perversely self-constrained, I’ll make a note to revisit this point several months from now, when I’ve reached the works of the 1950s and ’60s.

Opus 6: Suite in F-Sharp Minor for Two Pianos (1922)

September 2, 2010

Suite in F-Sharp Minor for Two Pianos, op. 6 (1922)
CD:  “Shostakovich: Complete Works for Two Pianos and Piano Four Hands”, Luisa Fanti Zurkowskaja, Sabrina Alberti (Dynamic CDS 464)

The suite for two pianos, in four movements and lasting about half an hour, is the first full-length work among Shostakovich’s completed and published ones.  It also marks a first (though isolated) attempt at a dramatic, expressive style that Shostakovich would turn to later, particularly in the late 1930s and 1940s:

Laurel Fay notes that Shostakovich composed the suite as a response to the death of his father and dedicated it to his memory, and it is moving as a talented sixteen-year-old’s reaction to the loss of a parent (which plunged his mother, older sister, and himself into financial trouble in those already unstable, post-Revolutionary times).  Musically, though, the suite doesn’t have enough ideas and structure to support its larger scale.  A broad, tolling theme dominates the opening Prelude to the point of repetitiveness and recurs at key moments in the three subsequent movements as well.  (You can hear it at the end of the third-movement excerpt above.)  The second movement, the Fantastic Dance, is less ponderous than the first and more musically promising, with an early fugato and a sort of exotic, orientalist episode halfway through.  The Nocture and Finale, ten minutes long apiece, have some dramatic sweep but little development.  Zurkowskaja and Alberti don’t have a mature piece to work with but their uniformly heavy reading of the suite doesn’t flatter it, especially in the potentially more charming second movement.  Overall, the piece is of biographical rather than musical interest.

Opus 5: Three Fantastic Dances (1922)

September 1, 2010

Three Fantastic Dances, op. 5 (1922)

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

More piano miniatures, heard again in Scherbakov’s Shostakovich survey on Naxos.  I imagine the young composer must have known Erik Satie’s work from the preceding couple of decades and imitated it here; at any rate he aims for the same dry humor and air of mystery as the French composer, particularly in the short runs up and down the keyboard in the opening March.  Scherbakov’s reading is appropriately reserved:

The Waltz and Polka that follow are similar in style and a little more forwardly tuneful.  The three make a charming enough five minutes of music, and are the earliest of the composer’s well-known works.  They’ve been recorded often, by among others such notables as Shostakovich himself and a young Glenn Gould (apparently in a piano and violin arrangement that doesn’t flash any of his later, famous musical personality); the dances are well represented on YouTube as well, both in cribbed commercial recordings and — where YouTube shines as a cultural document — in a number of taped recitals and home videos.

No opus number: Five Preludes (1919-1921)

August 26, 2010

Five Preludes (no opus number, 1919-1921)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.570092)

Scherbakov’s recording of these Five Preludes shares an album with the Three Pieces, which also date from Shostakovich’s time as a conservatory student, but the musical ideas in the preludes sound more mature and fully realized.  This group also contains the earliest music of Shostakovich’s that I had previously heard:  Valeri Polyansky’s “Unknown Shostakovich” album on Chandos includes the A minor and G major preludes as orchestrated decades later by Alfred Schnittke, who transforms them into colorful and, to my ear, vaguely pensive orchestral miniatures.

The very short, sprightly A minor prelude opens this set in a lyrical idiom like that of the Opus 1 scherzo.  The G major follows in a similar style but more contemplative mood, which builds to a central climax and then quiets back down, finally thinning out; the gentle, undulating music that opens it is the highlight of the five pieces:

In contrast, the central E minor prelude (according to the album notes, the only one of the five that didn’t originate in the Eight Preludes, Op. 2) finally flashes some spikiness, though not yet Shostakovich’s wit:


The D flat major prelude is airy and a bit sly, as the composer, and Scherbakov, toy with its over-refined tunefulness.  The last, in F minor, proceeds more straightforwardly before climbing to the high end of the keyboard and disappearing.  Together the preludes last under seven minutes, a musical bonbon, though I get more of a sense of the emerging composer from this work than from the two I listened to earlier this week.

Yesterday I took my lunch break to go down to the park near my office building downtown —  just a small greenspace with odd artificial hillocks surrounded by high-rise offices and condos, so full at that hour of dog walkers, the members of a small workout group, and miscellaneous workers on food / phone / cigarette breaks — and listen through the preludes a couple of times on my iPod, once while sitting on a bench and again while walking around the block.  I’m a little ambivalent about the experience of spending time out in public with my ears plugged into a device (like virtually everyone else, off in my own private Idaho, with noise-reducing headphones no less) but it’s a pleasant way to spend some time on a summer afternoon.

No opus number: Three Pieces (Minuet, Prelude, and Intermezzo) (1919-1920)

August 25, 2010

Three Pieces (Minuet, Prelude, and Intermezzo)  (1919-1920)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.570092)

Even more so than the F-sharp minor scherzo, this incomplete set of piano pieces sounds like a relic of Shostakovich’s musical education.  The three pieces run about three minutes in total.  The Minuet is a very brief exercise in classical style; the Prelude, while similarly uneventful, creates a gently mysterious atmosphere that’s more evocative than the pieces bookending it.  The Intermezzo, which Shostakovich didn’t complete, features an upward-leaping figure that lends it a little character but otherwise remains an unmemorable sketch.

The only event worth singling out comes at about the halfway point of the Minuet, when a rising, three-note gesture perks up over a pulsing accompaniment.  For a couple of bars, the music seems almost poised to jump into one of the spry melodic episodes that, to me, characterize his first symphony, but the anticipation quickly evaporates:


Scherbakov, who includes these pieces in his survey of Shostakovich’s solo piano work on Naxos, renders them with more attentiveness than most comparable student works will ever get.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers most recently popularized the idea that a person needs about 10,000 hours to master a skill; here is evidence of Shostakovich, still in his early teenage years, putting in his time.

Opus 2: Eight Preludes (1918-1920) — Lost

August 24, 2010

The manuscript of Shostakovich’s Opus 2, his Eight Preludes for piano, is lost, so here there is nothing to listen to.

It seems that at least some of Shostakovich’s Five Preludes for piano from the same time period (no opus number assigned) were extracted from the Opus 2 set.  Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay for Konstantin Scherbakov’s CD release of the Five Preludes (Naxos 8.570092) states that all five were taken from the Eight Preludes, although a note in the track listing claims that only some were, without specifying which ones.*  At any rate, I’ll consider the Five Preludes as their own work, later this week.

* Update, August 25, 2010: Factual errors already!  The CD booklet’s track listing does in fact state that all but the E minor prelude derive from Op. 2.