Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Complete Music for Piano Duo and Duet - Volume 2
Piano concerto No.2 in F major, Op.102 (1957) [19:04]
Symphony No.15 in A major, Op.141 (1971) [41:00]
Min Kyung Kim & Hyung Jin Moon (pianos)
First recordings
rec. May 2015 (symphony), January 2016 (concerto), Murchison Performing Arts Center, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas

As is pointed out in the booklet notes Shostakovich, in common with most of his contemporaries and those who went before, produced versions of many of his works for piano and also (in his case) for two pianos or duet, for either purely utilitarian purposes as well as to test out the works for himself, or in performance to friends and officials. The single exception is the fourth symphony, whose existence was kept alive for 25 years by its piano reduction, following its effective banning by the ‘cultural watchdogs’ in 1936.

On hearing the two piano version of the second piano concerto, my wife made the interesting observation that going on to orchestrate such a work must be a little like taking a skeleton and putting flesh on the bones, after which following on with clothes and finishing with accessories. She wondered how difficult that must be, including choosing which parts remain the province of the piano and which to hand over to the orchestra and further to which sets of instruments. On hearing this first recording of the work in this form, the remarkable thing is how ‘complete’ it sounds; if I had not known that it had ended up as a fully fledged concerto I would still have regarded it a considerable achievement that satisfies on several levels. That is why it is particularly interesting to learn, thanks to David Fanning’s as ever fascinating booklet notes, that Shostakovich wrote to fellow composer Edison Denisov saying the concerto had ‘no redeeming artistic merits’, this despite the fact that he wrote it for and dedicated it to his son Maxim, who gave its premiere on his nineteenth birthday on May 10 1957. In addition it fulfilled the socialist realist remit of ‘life-asserting’ music, which, as David Fanning points out, would have been one reason for the composer’s dismissive attitude towards it. However, Fanning further points out that ‘the artlessness is clearly by design, not by default’.

I have always been fond of the work, which is not just uplifting, but full of excitement and great fun, with its witty references to the sea shanty ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’. Also there are apparent quotations or allusions to Rachmaninov’s second and third piano concertos (were they intended to imply he thought they, too, were rather oversimplistic?). The slow movement has at its core the most lovely tune, which is a total contrast to the outer movements; speculation as to what this really means is still continuing. The third and final movement is again a fast paced romp and it is amazing how many things Shostakovich can do with a few notes, which in a few minutes he seems to play forward, backwards, inside out and upside down, getting maximum value from the simplest of ideas. It is often said of him that though he was for most of the time an extremely serious man he could ‘let his hair down’ and essays will cite his ballet suites as examples of this, but this concerto is proof positive of this facility and willingness to enjoy himself.

Shostakovich’s fifteenth and last symphony is a horse of a different colour altogether, full of allusions and quotations from other composer’s works and of his own. As is so often the case with his works, his comments are tantalising, while rarely being straightforwardly helpful, in explaining the meaning behind the work in question. As his ‘autobiography’ Testament has it: if ‘the majority of my symphonies are tombstones, then the fifteenth is a veritable graveyard’, leaving the reader or musicologist to puzzle that out. I’m sure that at the time he said that, and with a debilitating illness, diagnosed as motor neurone disease, his once all too real fear of being taken away to the gulag had become one of disinterest.

Being a symphony, this work is more difficult for a piano version to stand up in its own right, as the other work most obviously does, and so, for me at least, it is more a question of academic interest than of pure enjoyment. The symphony is a work that demands repeated listening, and as the first to have no programme attached since the tenth, written 18 years before, requires closer attention than many of his others that speak more directly to the listener.

The two Korean-born pianists on this recording are powerful advocates of the music and clearly had a ball while playing the two-piano version of the concerto, however, steering a necessarily more thoughtful course through the symphony. Most of us who love music recognise the signal role Shostakovich played in twentieth century music and though there are a few works of his that fall somewhat short in terms of success (2nd and 3rd symphonies for example and arguably to some extent also his 9th and 12th) these two works are up there with the best of his output of works including orchestra, while his chamber works are, without doubt, among the greatest works in the genre written by any composer in the last hundred years. This series is a valuable addition to aid our further understanding and appreciation for this giant of composition in the twentieth century.

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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