Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shostakovich - Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 102

By the time Dmitri Shostakovich began writing his 2nd Piano Concerto in 1957 he had lived an artistic life full of official censure and criticism. In the age of Stalin's ruthless paranoia, to be officially censured was often times a literal death sentence. Shostakovich managed to stay alive, but it had taken a toll on his already melancholy nature and the mood of much of his music.

But the 2nd Piano concerto is an exception. It was written for Shostakovich's son Maxim as a present for his 19th birthday.  Shostakovich himself said the work had "no redeeming artistic merit," but he may have been getting a head start in averting the inevitable negative criticism some would have.  The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The bassoon enters with the first theme with the piano close behind. The second theme quickens the paced and is played in single notes one octave apart in the piano. Some listeners have detected a similarity between this second theme and the sea shanty What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor. A third theme is played by the piano in single notes two octaves apart. After the third theme is played, the piano plays loud octaves while the orchestra plays a variant of the drunken sailor theme which is developed. The music comes to a tremendous climax and then halts. The piano takes off on its own with a fugal rendition of the first theme until the orchestra returns with the first theme. The drunken sailor theme returns and the movement comes to a close.

Dmitri and Maxim Shostakovich
II. Andante - The second movement is expressive music that touches on Shostakovich's melancholy nature, but in a romantic, tender fashion. The piano gently rises in register as the muted strings are suspended. Cross rhythms give a slight feeling of tension to the broad melody.  At a time when modern music was making extreme demands on players and listeners, Shostakovich's music wrote a short, thoroughly romantic movement that still pleases audiences. The music slowly unwinds and quietly comes to rest. The last movement begins without pause.

III. Allegro - The first theme is a lively dance with a few chuckles thrown in from the piano, which is followed by the second theme in 7/8 time. The third theme is the celebrated tongue in cheek quotation in Hanon piano exercise style, a joke written into the concerto for Maxim. The three themes are repeated, interlaced and developed. The 7/8 theme returns after which a coda finishes the concerto with a thunderous flourish.

There was a time early in Shostakovich's career when he was divided between being a composer or a concert pianist. Although he chose composer (and maintained later in life that he should have been both) he was no slouch as a pianist. Despite his comments about the lack of artistic merit, Shostakovich was fond of the 2nd concerto and played it in concert a few times. He made recordings of both concertos as soloist and they show him to be more than up to the task. His recording of the 2nd piano concerto shows him in fine form as he plays the music at break-neck speed and with a spiky touch in the first movement that fits the character of the movement very well. It is rare that a composer himself leaves a definitive performance of his own work, but Shostakovich did that with both concertos. The video below is a recording of Shostakovich playing his 2nd piano concerto.

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