Movement 1: Dialogues: Tempo rubato
Movement 2: Improvisations: Allegro
Movement 3: Contrasts: Andante – Allegro
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.
from notes by David Fanning © 2003