About this Recording
8.570092 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Sonata No. 2 / The Limpid Stream (piano transcription)
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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Piano Music

When considering the output of Dmitry Shostakovich, with its focus on theatrical projects in his earlier years and symphonic works thereafter, it is easy to forget the rôle of piano music as the repository for some of his most immediate ideas. This is not surprising when one remembers that the composer was a prizewinner at the 1927 Chopin Competition in Warsaw and appeared frequently, if often unwillingly, as an exponent of his piano music until restricted by illness in the late 1950s. Following on from the monumental cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues [Naxos 8.554745-46], the First Piano Sonata and the 24 Preludes [Naxos 8.555781], this disc features most of Shostakovich's remaining piano pieces - including miniatures and arrangements no less characteristic for their brevity.

Very different from its youthful, hard-hitting predecessor, the Second Piano Sonata was begun during February 1943 and completed a month later. Dedicated to the memory of his one-time teacher Leonid Nikolayev, the composer gave the official première in Moscow on 6 June. Despite its positive reception, and advocacy of distinguished pianists (notably Emil Gilels), not to mention its poise and lucidity as piano writing, the work has remained at or near the periphery of the modern repertoire, perhaps because its largely introspective nature evinces a decidedly private, even ambiguous response to the war years. The Allegretto springs into life with an animated theme in which melody and accompaniment are closely interrelated. Gathering momentum, this leads into a insouciant-sounding theme which has a march-like gait. A brief recall of the first theme presages the development, which takes this as the basis for a series of imitative entries building to the main climax - at which, the first theme is stated in full before dissolving into a sparser rendition of the second theme. The first theme returns as a coda to steer the movement towards its brusque conclusion. The Largoopens with an elegant if moody theme, whose tonal uncertainty increases its restlessness. A central episode features a self-effacing idea over minimal accompaniment, unfolding in an almost improvisatory manner, before the first theme eases back into the frame, mingling with elements of its successor as the movement reaches a quiet but far from tranquil close. The finale is a passacaglia (variations on a theme often confined to the bass register), a form that became a familiar feature of Shostakovich's instrumental works in the next quarter-century. The deceptively self-effacing theme is presented as a single unaccompanied melodic line of thirty bars duration. Variation I thickens the texture by the addition of a bass line and simple harmonic accompaniment whilst Variation II increases the momentum with flowing triplets above the theme as presented in the left hand. Marked più mosso, Variation III increases the pace still further with quiet staccato writing that gains in intensity until the chordal writing of Variation IV - a typically cold Shostakovich lansdcape. Variation V is a terse scherzo marked Allegro con moto, which features some of the most virtuosic writing of the sonata. The almost canonic representation of the theme in Variation VI is characterised by "punctuations" between the two hands that builds in complexity until a molto rit heralds the poco meno mosso of Variation VII with its pulsating, dotted ostinato rhythm. The austerity of Variation VIII, marked Adagio, gives way to a more gentle version of the same rhythmic idea in Variation IX which, in turn, ends with another cold chordal variant of the theme before the start of Variation X which sees the theme accompanied by murmuring semiquavers in the right hand. The mood subsides to end the movement in an atmosphere of reflective regret.

Shostakovich's works pre-dating his First Symphony of 1925 only really became known with publications in the wake of his sixtieth birthday in 1966, one being the Five Preludes of 1919-21. At this time the composer also wrote a set of Eight Preludes, first heard in July 1926 and designated 'Op. 2', but not published, with the manuscript later lost. In 1921, however, Shostakovich extracted five of these for a cycle of 24 preludes (only eighteen were completed) composed with his fellow students Pavel Feldt and Georgi Klements, and which are heard here.

The Prelude in A minor is a rapid though lightly tripping number, given additional character by telling chromatic side-slips. The G major combines a ruminative motion in the left hand with sonorous chords above, building to a ringing climax before a return to the calm of its beginning. The E minor maintains a driving energy through its heavy chords and demonstrative gestures. The D flat major is, by contrast, unruffled in manner, combining its limpid phrases to discreet if touching effect. The F minor is the most Russian-sounding, its melancholic phrases, redolent of the 'Romance' settings by an earlier generation of composers, finally disappearing off the top of the keyboard.

Even earlier - probably around the time Shostakovich entered the Petrograd Conservatory in autumn 1919 - are the Three Pieces. The Minuet is an ingratiating exercise in Mozartian elegance, while the Prelude sounds a gently wistful note. The Intermezzo, though incomplete*, is more developed in manner, recalling 'easy pieces' by the teenage Prokofiev a decade before.

Composed in 1944-5, ostensibly to test the pianistic skills of Shostakovich's daughter Galina, the Child's Exercise Book is a light-weight but never trite undertaking. The March unfolds with a robust emphasis on its underlying rhythm, while Valse brings an element of suffused wistfulness. The Bear seems to be a relatively good-natured beast, for all the heavily accentuated gestures of its gait, and Merry Tale bursts forward in the manner of a boisterous galop familiar from the composer's ballet scores. Sad Tale, the most extended number, inhabits a very different world in its gentle but expressive pathos, while Clockwork Doll moves rapidly and not too awkwardly in its automated gestures. Birthday sounds a note of celebration through its repeated-note fanfares, an apt way with which to round off the whole cycle.

Undated, the brief Murzilka, named after a children's magazine, was likely also written in the mid- 1940s. Its spikily imitative counterpoint makes it a musical frontispiece of no mean irony.

The Limpid Stream (1934-5) was Shostakovich's attempt to meet the dictates of Socialist Realism for music that embodied the most positive qualities of the Soviet people. The scenario, with groups of performers and collective farmers meeting in the countryside, acknowledging common ideological aims and celebrating them forthwith, is little more than an excuse for extended dance routines. Yet the ballet enjoyed a successful run at Leningrad's Maly Theatre from June 1935 until February 1936, when a harsh review in Pravda (after an equally negative appraisal of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk weeks earlier) sealed its fate. Shostakovich's piano reduction of the ballet saw publication as recently as 1997, and extracts are included here. Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor-Driver is alternately winsome and demonstrative in manner, and effectively evokes the contrasting demeanour of its protagonists. The succinct Scene and Waltz unfolds in lively fashion, while Ballerina's Waltz is in the true traditions of its genre, the main theme alternating with several episodes in an evident 'show-stopper'. After a rhetorical flourish, Tango stealthily brings out the dance's stylized wit and energy, building a keen momentum that concludes with a suitably hectic dash to the finish.

Richard Whitehouse
* 'Completed' on this recording with the addition of a perfect cadence by the pianist.


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