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8.553126 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Festive Overture, Op. 96
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102
The Age of Gold: Ballet Suite, Op. 22a
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35

Dmitry Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Age of Gold was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism. The first of these, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, The Third Symphony, completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the regime and was subtitled The First of May.

In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.

In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev. Its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on morale in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad.

Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and Khachaturian, branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961. In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.

The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Kuchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9 August.

The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony - The Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich, by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony of others and recent scholarly surveys of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.

The Festive Overture of Shostakovich was written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. The composition came in response to a last minute commission from the conductor at the Bolshoy Theatre, who found himself without a celebratory overture to open the concert, to be attended by important members of the political establishment. Shostakovich wrote the overture at incredible speed, as Elizabeth Wilson relates in her recent biography of the composer, with messengers from the Bolshoy coming one after another to take the completed pages of the score to the copyists. The instrumentation is for a large orchestra with the optional addition of a brass band.

The Piano Concerto No.2 in F major, was written in 1957 for Shostakovich's son Maxim, who gave the first performance of the work on his nineteenth birthday. The work has about it a youthful appeal for performers and audience alike. The lively first movement opens with a brisk march, leading to a gentler second theme. The material is developed in the central section, and a cadenza ushers in again the principal theme to bring the movement to an end. The expressive slow movement, a romantic interlude of obviously Russian inspiration, introduced by the strings, is followed by an energetic finale, a rondo, the dance-rhythm of its principal subject contrasted with a secondary theme with an oddly lop-sided rhythm.

The ballet The Age of Gold was an attempt by the Leningrad Theatre Commission to create a truly Soviet ballet. The libretto, by Alexander Ivanovsky, under the original title Dynamiada, was uninspiring, but the ballet was staged at the Kirov and continued, in spite of critical objections, throughout the season. The story concerns the success of a Soviet football team attending the Golden Age Industrial Exposition in a Western capitalist city. Here the evils of Fascism are exposed, but the heroes of Communism, prevail in a final dance of solidarity between Western workers and the footballers. The Introduction in the suite drawn from the ballet by the composer includes a parody of academic fugal writing. The romantic Adagio for the Diva in the Exposition Hall is followed by the third act Polka, the 'Angel of Peace' or 'Once upon a time in Geneva', a satire on the League of Nations. The final Russian Dance is taken from the first act of the ballet, celebrating the arrival of the Soviet footballers. The Age of Gold was revived at the Kirov in 1982 with a new libretto now set in a Russian Black Sea resort in 1923, when young communists oppose the surviving elements of bourgeois capitalism, criminals who meet in The Golden Age night-club.

The Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor was written in 1933 and performed with considerable success, becoming a continuing part of Shostakovich's repertoire as a pianist. The concerto, scored for piano and strings, otherwise includes an important part for solo trumpet, written for the principal trumpet of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Schmidt. It is a lively work, full of capricious humour, its mood established at the outset by the soloist. A second element, in E flat major, is introduced by the piano, one of those melodies characteristic of Shostakovich, with an unexpected twist of harmony. The Lento, centering on the key of E minor, is introduced by the orchestra and allows the solo piano moments of romanticism, before embarking on the introduction to the brief third movement which serves itself as a prelude to the final energetic Allegro con brio.

Keith Anderson

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