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Hyperion Records

CDA67425 - Shostakovich & Shchedrin: Piano Concertos
Head of a Peasant (detail) by Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Russian State Museum, St Petersburg / AKG-Images, London
CDA67425
Recording details: April 2003
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2003
Total duration: 62 minutes 44 seconds

'Marc-André Hamelin is a superb advocate for all three pieces—the zip and zest of much of the writing presenting no difficulty to this extraordinary virtuoso.' (Gramophone)

'it's on the basis of interpretation that Hamelin earns a top recommendation here, and he's sympathetically supported by Litton and the excellent Scottish ensemble … those looking for their first recordings of the Shostakovich concertos won't go wrong with Hamelin' (Fanfare, USA)

Shostakovich & Shchedrin: Piano Concertos
Allegro moderato  [5'40]
Lento  [8'27]
Moderato  [1'33]
Allegro con brio  [6'31]
Allegro  [6'50]
Andante  [7'18]
Allegro  [5'05]

The two piano concertos of Shostakovich, though strikingly different from each other, have both become twentieth-century classics. The first has long been one of Marc-André Hamelin’s party pieces and we are delighted to have paired him with Andrew Litton, a conductor who knows these works backwards (he has recorded the second concerto as pianist!), to give the resulting performances a vitality and flair, which we think places them amongst the greatest.

The Shchedrin concerto, though less known, is no less enjoyable. There is brilliance in both the piano writing and the orchestration, and the surprise appearance in the finale of a jazz trio including vibraphone and drum kit is sure to bring the house down.

One of our records of the year!


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Though something of a late beginner by prodigy standards, not having started lessons until he was nine, Shostakovich made such rapid strides as a pianist that he was soon playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety and, by the age of fifteen, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. As a student he developed his piano-playing and his composing with more or less equal eagerness. He entered the first International Chopin Competition in 1927, where he progressed to the finals but was not a prizewinner – his Moscow friend Lev Oborin won first prize, and the legendary Grigory Ginzburg was placed fourth. Shostakovich reckoned that his performance was hampered by pain from appendicitis, and he suspected the Polish jury of not wanting to give too many prizes to the Russian contingent. At any rate that set-back was decisive for setting him on the path of composition as his main career. As a pianist he gradually narrowed the focus of his repertoire, still performing the first concertos of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky until the end of 1930, but thereafter confining himself (except in chamber music) to his own works.

His own First Piano Concerto started life, at least according to the diaries of his pupil Evgeny Makarov, as a trumpet concerto, only gradually metamorphosing into the guise we now know. The trumpet part was apparently written with the principal of the Leningrad Philharmonic in mind – one Alexander Schmidt, whose playing in Skryabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony had recently been acclaimed. The period of composition, from March to July 1933, coincided with preparations for the staging of Shostakovich’s second opera, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, the official denunciation of which two-and-a-half years later would force him to reinvent himself as a composer. At this time he could still afford to take a confrontational attitude to the concerto genre without bringing censure down on his head. In fact this would be the first piano concerto of significance to emerge from Soviet Russia. Earlier examples, by Shaporin, Kabalevsky and Feynberg, failed to hold a place in the repertory, while Prokofiev’s five were products either of pre-Revolutionary times or of his Parisian exile, and Khachaturyan’s neo-romantic extravaganza would follow three years later.

The models and affinities for Shostakovich’s Concerto have to be sought outside Russia. In its mixture of frivolity, circus-like tumbling routines, and lyricism, it is a cousin of Ravel’s G major and Prokofiev’s Fifth (both premiered in 1932), and there is more than a hint of Gershwin’s Concerto in F (1925) in the slow movement and of Stravinsky’s Petrushka in the fast outer movements.

For the previous six years Shostakovich had been composing almost exclusively for stage and screen, and the impact of that can be heard throughout the Concerto, both in its willingness to quote or paraphrase a wide range of pre-existing music and in its restless shifting from one style to another. The first movement soon accelerates away from its thoughtful opening, the mood becoming cheekier with each ratcheting up of the tempo. The slow movement is a sorrowful slow waltz, whose reprise is led off by muted trumpet. Next comes a restless interlude as a kind of extended upbeat into a galop finale, whose uproarious pastiche of Beethoven’s Rondo ‘The Rage over the Lost Penny’ jostles for position with several other familiar or familiar-sounding themes.

Shostakovich himself gave the premiere of the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings on 15 October 1933, with the Leningrad Philharmonic under their German émigré conductor, Fritz Stiedry. Thereafter it became a staple of his repertoire until the late-1950s, when illness began to affect the mobility of his right hand.

It was shortly before that weakness began to manifest itself that Shostakovich composed his Second Piano Concerto. According to the composer himself, this work has ‘no redeeming artistic merits’; and unlike some remarks often attributed to him, this one is verifiable – it comes from a letter to Edison Denisov from mid-February 1957, barely a week after he had finished work on the Concerto. Yet as with so many of Shostakovich’s pronouncements it would be dangerous to take it at face value. By this stage in his troubled career he had developed the habit of addressing others in terms that he felt they would most easily relate to, leaving posterity to squabble over what he really meant. Writing to a composer of the young Denisov’s stylistically progressive inclinations, Shostakovich was presumably eager to pre-empt criticism of what was to all appearances one of his most unadventurous scores. There may even have been an ironic wink behind the remark that Denisov missed.

We do not have to look for complexities of tone in the music (though they are there to be found) in order to counter Shostakovich’s deprecatory assessment. For like the even less sophisticated Concertino for Two Pianos (1954), the Second Piano Concerto was composed for his son, Maxim, who was completing his pre-Conservatoire studies at Moscow’s Central Music School and who gave the Concerto its première on 10 May 1957, the day of his nineteenth birthday. Amid the high jinks of the outer movements, there are a number of in-jokes between father and son, most obviously in the imitations of Hanon studies in the finale. Furthermore the piece fits snugly into a well established sub-genre of Soviet music: the so-called ‘Youth’ concerto, targeted specifically at young players in the country’s massively subsidised pedagogic system, and popularised above all by Dmitri Kabalevsky. It also fulfils, maybe even over-fulfils, the constantly repeated demands made on Soviet composers for uplifting, ‘life-asserting’ music (which may further explain Shostakovich’s keenness to pass it off as mere hackwork). At any rate the artlessness is clearly by design, not by default.

The first movement gets straight down to business with a perky quick-march tune in the woodwind and a piano rejoinder that could be a skit on the opening of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto. The soloist cannot resist adding an idea that inevitably reminds British listeners of the sea-shanty, ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’. (Whether Shostakovich was aware of this similarity is unknown, but he was certainly acquainted with a range of popular songs from around the world, and in 1943 he had made arrangements of a number of British and American folksongs.) A more thoughtful piano theme fades away with melancholy hints of the original march-like rhythms. This idea will make one further appearance in the movement, in the full orchestra over plunging arpeggios in the piano, at the climax to a long passage of accumulating tension. It is this central accumulation, made especially dramatic in Shostakovich’s own recorded performances, that sets the movement’s high spirits in a more serious context. Afterwards comes a brittle cadenza and a succinct review of the earlier playful themes.

The Andante slow movement is a touching gift from father to son. A gentle sarabande for strings alternates with a heavenly tune for the piano that again suggests a gentle parody of Rachmaninov (this time the slow movement of his Second Piano Concerto). Shostakovich’s childlike simplicity is almost always accompanied by shades of something else, often a wistful sense of distance or memory. It is music about simplicity rather than simple music. The documentary film-maker who once used this movement to accompany autumnal vistas glimpsed from a boat on the Moscow river surely had the right instincts.

Without a break the piano transforms its quiet, tolling repeated notes back into something resembling the first movement’s jauntiness. The finale has begun. It is time to close the poetry book and watch the circus clowns do their stuff. This takes the form of a fast polka, then a cheerfully off-balance seven-beat rhythm and finally the imitation-Hanon studies – the kind of thing that Shostakovich might well have heard his son hammering away while he tried to compose. The finale rings the changes on these three ideas, throwing in some wickedly abrupt modulations on the way and cannily holding back the side drum for extra rhythmic point in the later stages. By Shostakovich’s standards this music may hardly be rocket-science. But it says something for his gifts as a composer that without unduly straining himself he produced the last piano concerto to gain a place in the standard concert repertoire.

Since Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the number of front-rank composers who could also claim to be first-rate concert pianists has dwindled remarkably. And of the remaining few, hardly any have made piano music as strong a feature of their output as Rodion Shchedrin. Trained as a composer under Yuri Shaporin and as a pianist under Yakov Flier, he has composed six piano concertos to date (the latest was first performed in August 2003 in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam) as well as a substantial body of solo piano music, to go with a sizeable quantity of dramatic and orchestral music. He also played a significant role in the musical life of the former Soviet Union, from 1973 to 1990 as chairman of the Russian Union of Composers, an organization founded by Shostakovich (not to be confused with the umbrella organisation, the Union of Soviet Composers). Both in his pronouncements and in his creative work Shchedrin occupied a not always comfortable position, straddling the national–traditional and the international–progressive wings and doing everything he judged possible to liberalise conditions for his fellow-composers, yet having little sympathy with the ‘underground’ avant-garde.

If that description suggests a latter-day Shostakovich, the music itself is far more strongly marked by the example of Prokofiev – in its vivid colours, forceful energy, self-belief and absence of doubt. His First Piano Concerto, a graduation piece from 1954, was a cheerfully extrovert romp that could have been designed as a tribute to Prokofiev who had died the previous year. Twelve years on, the Second Concerto retains that influence, alongside a fascination with twelve-note techniques that had been a presence in Soviet music for the past decade but that was still regarded in some quarters as forbidden fruit. Seemingly relishing the confrontational aspect involved in adopting this idiom, Shchedrin was nonetheless determined to write public, communicative music rather than ‘to sit around at home writing dodecaphonic music in the privacy of one’s own living-room’. And he was equally determined to force its official acceptance. He himself gave the première of the Second Concerto, with Rozhdestvensky conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, and he took it on a European tour with the Leningrad Philharmonic and Mravinsky later in 1966.

The opening is a grimly determined monologue for the piano, on a twelve-note theme whose initial F major scale segment will later detach itself and spawn new variants. Harsh orchestral interjections immediately clarify the nature of the sub-title, ‘Dialogues’. Tension soon increases towards a perpetuum mobile that never fully materialises. Instead soloist and orchestra react to one another in ways that drive the music forwards and at the same time challenge it to find new resources of energy, eventually producing a grinding orchestral climax before the piano settles the lengthy movement in a tone of troubled contemplation.

The second movement begins full of manic drive, as if to reinstate the perpetual motion the first never quite achieved. It is headed ‘Improvisations’, but that element is confined to some passing moments of Polish-style ‘aleatory’, where the piano is allowed to place given note-patterns freely in relation to the orchestra and elsewhere to choose any note while sticking to prescribed rhythms. This driving scherzo-substitute movement soon takes its leave with a snarl.

The 'Contrasts' of the finale are immediately suggested by an arrestingly simple idea, as the soloist potters around on perfect fourths and fifths, sounding rather like a piano-tuner at work before the concert, while bells and flutes are suspended high above, as if defying the piano to sound in tune. A weighty monologue for the violins develops into a passionate orchestral interlude. Then the stylistic contrasts really kick in. As though with a flick of the radio switch we find ourselves being entertained by a restaurant jazz combo; another flick and we are in a nightmare film chase sequence; then back again. Fragments of the ‘Dialogues’ and ‘Improvisations’ hurtle by in the mêlée, the impression being at once unfocused yet exhilarating, because we sense that the composer can call the music to heel at any point and take it where he wants it to go.

David Fanning © 2003

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