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Piano Sonata No 2, Op 61

'Shostakovich: Three Fantastic Dances, 24 Preludes & Piano Sonata No 2' (CDA66620)
Shostakovich: Three Fantastic Dances, 24 Preludes & Piano Sonata No 2
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Movement 1: Allegretto
Movement 2: Largo
Movement 3: Moderato con moto

Piano Sonata No 2, Op 61
As a general rule, Shostakovich tended to place the greatest emphasis with regard to emotional content and depth in the first movements of many of his works, and reserved in the main a mood of relaxed optimism, less profound than in the opening movements, for his finales. This of course was by no means unusual but curiously, in the Second Piano Sonata, composed in 1943 and premiered by the composer himself on 11 November of that year, it is the finale which is by far the longest movement, and the first movement—the fast-moving yet paradoxically-marked Allegretto—appears, in retrospect, to be the least important.

This is more apparent than real, however, for the fleet pulse of the first movement is not a barnstorming, noisy parade, but is more akin to the swift thought of intense concentrated activity. It is salutary to compare this movement (indeed, one could with profit do so by using the entire Sonata) with Shostakovich’s more ‘public’ compositions of the same period, notably the Eighth Symphony (completed a few months after this Sonata) in which a similar profound impression is conveyed through broadly identical processes. Indeed, the structural device of placing the emphasis on the finale was carried a stage further in the Second Piano Trio opus 67.

The second movement, a lamenting Largo, forms the perfect foil to the fleet music of the first movement, but it is much more than that. As mentioned earlier, and like the Second Piano Trio, the B minor Sonata is a memorial work. It is dedicated to the memory of the Russian piano pedagogue and composer Leonid Nikolayev, who had died in October 1942 at the age of 64 in Tashkent (to where he had been evacuated following the Nazi invasion in 1941). He had been one of Shostakovich’s early teachers at the Petrograd Conservatory (he had been a professor there since 1906); in the Largo movement of this Sonata it is certainly not too fanciful to feel that this deeply affecting creation is a searching lament for this noble musician.

The relative clarity of the Sonata’s tonal structure acts as an anchor throughout the work: reasonably firmly rooted in B minor, it is the home key which pervades both the first movement and the finale; the Largo falls to A flat major/minor—the same interval, the minor third, from the tonic B minor which marked the opening of the Sonata’s first theme. The tonality now rises for the extended finale. The first themes of each of the Sonata’s three movements stretches the intervals—the first began with a minor third, the second with a falling fourth, the finale with a rising fifth—and this remarkable concluding movement could possibly stand as a separate piece, as an extended set of variations upon a lengthy, winding and curiously memorable theme (as it is fashioned from scraps of ideas). The moods in the finale are wide-ranging yet are impacted and continuously flowing. It is only with the concluding pages that the entire strands of the Sonata are at last brought together in a masterly act of synthesis: the swift semiquavers of the first movement are combined with the solemnity of the Largo through the main theme of the finale. It is a very remarkable compositional achievement, one’s only regret being that Shostakovich did not explore the piano Sonata medium as thoroughly as he did that of the symphony and string quartet.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1992

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