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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 12 (1926) [12:21]  
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (1933) [21:40]
Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 61 (1943) [26:42]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102 (1957) [19:00]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Hugh Davies (trumpet)
Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
rec. Malvern Theatre, 2016 (Op. 35); Cheltenham Town Hall, 2015 (Op. 102); Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, 2015 (Opp. 12 & 61)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Hyperion
Pdf booklet included
SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD493 [79:43]

This is the second instalment in Peter Donohoe’s Shostakovich series for Signum. Indeed, if Dominy Clements’s review of volume one is anything to go by, this follow-up should be rather special. Then again, ever since I first heard this pianist – in a barnstorming performance of the Busoni concerto, recorded live at the BBC Proms in 1988 – I’ve admired him for his versatility and insight. Most recently, I reviewed his fine SOMM disc of Prokofiev sonatas. As for the Orchestra of the Swan, they first swam into my ken with their splendid SOMM recording of Schoenberg’s arrangements of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde  (review).

I’ve always been inordinately fond of Shostakovich’s two piano concertos, which I discovered via a CBS-Sony classic from the 1960s, with André Previn, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. And although the recording is showing its age, the performances still have a verve and volatility that others can only dream of. That said, the Dmitri Alexeev/Jerzy Maksymiuk/ECO performances on CfP – in far better sound – run them close. The latter includes a truly unforgettable account of The Assault on Beautiful Gorky; indeed, this is an album that all DSCH fans simply must have on their shelves or hard drives.

Of more recent couplings of the concertos, Anna Vinnitskaya – with the Kremerata Baltica and the Winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden – is certainly worth a listen (Alpha). She directs Op. 35 from the keyboard, whereas Op. 102 is conducted by Omer Meir Wellber.  Even more recent is the Boris Giltburg/Vasily Petrenko/RLPO disc, which Simon Thompson nominated a Recording of the Month (Naxos). As it happens, I pitted Giltburg and Vinnitskaya against each other in works by Rachmaninov; one of them took quite a drubbing in the process (review).

Shostakovich’s two piano sonatas may be less popular, but they’re remarkable pieces that reveal more of their virtues at each audition. I’ve also been listening to Irina Chukovskaya in Op. 61 and the Op. 34 Preludes (Melodiya), performances that Dominy described as ‘top drawer’. I couldn’t agree more, but if you fancy extraordinary accounts of both sonatas, and the Preludes, try Raymond Clarke on Athene. David Wright dubbed that CD ‘a winner, an absolute cracker’; it certainly won’t please everyone – No. 1 has never sounded so audacious – but there’s no doubting the unbridled talent on display here.

Sentiments echoed by Prokofiev, who, having returned to Russia in 1927, was much impressed by the 19-year-old Shostakovich’s first piano sonata. As he noted in his diary: ‘Quite the young man, not only a composer but also a pianist.’ Donohoe really brings out the contrapuntal writing here; and, as something of a Prokofiev expert, he finds a mischievous modernity in the music that confirms the latter’s influence on this early score. Whether in those big, clustered climaxes or in those reflecting pools, Donohoe’s responses are never less than commanding. Factor in Robin Hawkins’s detailed and weighty recording, nicely balanced, and you have a very decent account of this precocious piece.

Switching to Clarke brings to mind two very different rides at a funfair; one is the Cups and Saucers, the other the Big Dipper. Given that Clarke shaves nearly two minutes off Donohoe’s timing, there are no prizes for guessing which is the white-knuckle ride. Athene’s bright, upfront recording really sharpens the senses, and that makes Clarke’s performance doubly thrilling. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but dienophiles and Shostakovich fans will find much to enjoy here.

That first sonata, a perfect example of what Forster called ‘the cleverness of the young’, is a world away from the grown-up second. It was wartime, Shostakovich’s piano professor Leonid Nikolayev had just died, and the composer himself was recovering from typhoid fever. In spite of all that, there’s an ease and eloquence to the early part of the Allegretto that Donohoe, with his customary assurance, captures so well. He’s jewelled, too, his control of rhythm and dynamics exemplary. And what a nuanced and varied narrative this is, holding one’s interest to the very end.

The Largo, with its soft, spectral dissonances, is still remarkably lyrical, and Donohoe strikes an ideal balance between these opposing elements. Think of it as poise and equipoise, a synthesis that neither Churkovskaya nor Clarke can match. How lovely those pensive doodles at the start of the Moderato con moto, and how heartfelt the music that follows. But it’s the deeply intuitive nature of Donohoe’s performance, its rare sense of communion, that makes it so special. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is the most complete account of the Op. 61 that I’ve ever heard. Just one ride at this particular fair, but worth the price of admission alone.

Donohoe is no less accomplished in the two concertos, although the first, recorded in the Malvern Theatre, sounds much too close to me. Also, the lower strings and the piano’s bass notes are somewhat muffled, the tuttis a tad congested. I suspect that has everything to do with this venue’s acoustics, as Mike Hatch’s recordings are usually beyond reproach. As for the conductor David Curtis, he’s a reliable accompanist, although I find him lacklustre in the Lento. Yes, this is an inward-looking interlude, but it needs more lift, more light, than it gets here. Trumpeter Hugh Davies does pretty well, though.

In short, this is a somewhat disappointing account of the first concerto. The second, also engineered by Mike Hatch, was recorded in what seems to be the more congenial surroundings of Cheltenham Town Hall. The sound is quite airy, and there’s no hint of the woolly bass that blights the Malvern sessions. Overall, the balance is much better too, the side drum especially well caught. As ever, Donohoe is very much in control, rising to the big moments with authority and aplomb. Alas, there’s a ‘but’, and it’s a big one: the Andante is so sluggish that it comes perilously close to stalling at times.

It’s the curse of comparisons, I suppose. but switching to Bernstein and Maksymiuk simply magnifies the shortcomings here. More than anything, I feel these Curtis/Donohoe performance lack essential cheek and chutzpah. True, the finale of Op. 102 has energy and point, but given what’s gone before it feels oddly contrived. No, there are much better recordings of these concertos out there, those I’ve mentioned high among them. That said, Donohoe’s sonatas are very distinguished, the second especially so. Also, the playing time is generous, and Daniel Jaffé’s notes are clear and concise.

Excellent sonatas and disappointing concertos; variable sound.

Dan Morgan


 




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