Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Allegro
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.
from notes by David Fanning © 2003