About this Recording
ODE1253-2 - Violin and Piano Recital: Schmid, Benjamin / Smirnova, Lisa - SHOSTAKOVICH, D. / PROKOFIEV, S. / WEILL, K.
English  German 

Between the Wars


“When listening to this transcription I forgot that I wrote these preludes for the piano as they now suit the violin so well.” A finer compliment to a transcriber could hardly be imagined. Dmitri Shostakovich was thanking a friend, the long-standing leader of the Beethoven Quartet of Moscow, Dmitri Tsyganov (1903–1992). He was referring to the version for violin and keyboard of nineteen of the 24 preludes Op. 34. Shostakovich, an outstanding pianist, had composed the cycle in 1932/33 and had given the complete first performance of the original version in Moscow on 24 May 1933, to great acclaim. Tsyganov’s quartet was the composer’s favourite ensemble for performances of his string quartets. At the time of composition of op. 34 the dark shadows of Stalinism had not begun to dominate the lives of Soviet composers as much as they came to do only a short time later. As early as 1931 Shostakovich’s ballet The Bolt had in fact been struck off the programme by the censors, but the life-threatening disciplinary action that followed his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District did not come until 1936. Three years previously he had been one of the new Soviet Union’s undisputed young master musicians and, from the sensational success of his Symphony No. 1 in Berlin in 1927, if not earlier, an international celebrity.

Shostakovich had published his first eight piano preludes as his Op. 2 as early as 1920, when aged only fourteen. Five more followed in the context of collaboration with fellow students at the conservatoire. They took as models the corresponding cycles by Debussy, Scriabin and Rachmaninov, and, perhaps even more, the influential preludes by Chopin, from the golden age of the Romantic Movement. Some of Chopin’s music already has that undercurrent of romantic irony that recurs, sharpened and honed, in the tonal language of the young Russian, doubtless initiated by intensive study of the music of Mahler from 1930 on. Some two decades after Op. 34 the composer turned his attention to the form for the last time with another set of 24 preludes and fugues Op. 87, this time more in the tradition of Bach and his Well-tempered Klavier. Thus the history of the prelude form, from organ prelude to piano fantasia, is reflected in the works of Shostakovich.

The Preludes Op. 34, of which we present here a selection of fourteen, are characterised by a dance-like verve, a sparkling range of colour, playful wit and satirical moodiness - characteristics which are, however, already quite frequently tinged with apprehension of bitter experiences to come. Together with the Russian and Jewish folk traditions always beloved by Shostakovich, there is a strong element of the light music of the time, between piquant swing and elegant waltzes, often with a hint of satire. The aphoristic brevity of these pieces, often lasting just a few minutes, is compelling. Shostakovich wrote a similarly concise sequence of delightful snapshots of the highest quality that lie between parodistic fine line drawing and lyrical dalliance, but unlike Webern he does not abandon tonality, and his harmonic system is very different. Tsyganov, the arranger, added nothing of his own but shared out the important features between the two instruments, the violin being allotted many an effusively songlike melody. In such moments the magic of the exquisite salon music of Kreisler is not far away. But in No. 12, for instance, lasting only 49 seconds, the turbulent fury of the composer’s orchestral scherzos is foreshadowed, while No. 13, following it, has the effect of a nostalgic meditation and, as the last of the preludes selected for this recording, forms an extremely compressed, succinct and noisy conclusion.

Prokofiev, likewise a brilliant pianist, wrote his Visions fugitives Op. 22 during the great upheavals ravaging Europe in 1915 and 1917. When he premiered the original version on 15 April 1918 in Petrograd (the city originally called St Petersburg, which became Leningrad and is now St Petersburg again), the catastrophe afflicting “yesterday’s world” was coming to an end, and the Soviets were already in control in much of Russia. Prokofiev, older than Shostakovich and a much cooler pragmatist, soon left his homeland and made a successful career in the west before returning to Stalin’s empire in 1936 to live the life of a “folk artist” in the USSR, unmolested, basically accepted, and indeed the recipient of official honours. The expressive violin and piano version of the Visions, appearing in 1993, was the work of the pianist and teacher Viktor Derevianko. Once a pupil of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, Derevianko had collaborated after 1970 with Shostakovich, who was now an official “state composer” and had been decorated with public honours but was still suffering under the situation imposed on him. Derevianko emigrated to Israel in 1976.

Prokofiev later became a representative of the tradition which had been creatively followed up in a less tightly restricted context of “social realism”. In his youth in Russia he had been branded a young firebrand, although he always adhered to an extended tonality. He combined significant melodic inspiration with an unmistakable feel for motoric rhythm that many people’s ears found disturbing. “It can be observed that my temperament is somewhat restrained in the Visions fugitives,” he wrote with a hint of self-irony in his autobiography. “No. 5 was written first, No. 19 last. The order in which the pieces appear in the collection was determined by artistic considerations, not by the order in which they were composed. The title was suggested by the following lines from Balmont: ‘In every fleeting vision I see worlds filled with the interplay of rainbow colours.’” The Russian lyric poet Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), who died in exile in Paris, was a typical representative of symbolism.

Like Webern and, later, Shostakovich, Prokofiev with the twenty “fleeting visions”, some of them lasting less than a minute, was providing a riposte to the excesses of late romanticism. Here the composer, who has been dubbed a “merciless metronome”, shows a more lucid, discreetly impressionistic side of himself. The palette of the finely-chiselled mood pictures ranges from Poetico (No. 17) to Pittoresco (No. 7, including an imitation of a harp), and from Con eleganza (No. 6), lasting 40 seconds, to the final Lento irrealmente, which paints an otherworldly, misty atmosphere lasting almost two minutes. Prokofiev spiced up his brevity with dissonances which were often audacious for their period. At the time his attention was caught by Scriabin’s and Schoenberg’s innovations, but he always turned these stimuli to a capriciously formulated, complex tonality.

Kurt Weill, the son of a Dessau cantor, was sympathetic to the ideas of communism, not only through his famous collaboration with the playwright Bertolt Brecht. A pupil of Busoni, Weill began by composing ambitiously conceived symphonies and chamber music, but he was keenly aware of the social problems of his time and wrote his singspiels. folk operas and musicals specifically for “ordinary people”, in an approachably simple melodic style which shunned both the sensual opulence of later operettas and the bold visions of the atonal avant-garde. Weill’s desire was to be understood by everyone and free from narrow-minded ideologies. Accordingly when he was forced to flee Nazi Germany he chose France and then particularly the USA for his exile rather than the Soviet Union.

Weill too had a splendid melodic gift, as is clearly evident in his music to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Written in 1928, the text of this very successful opera, though not its music, was based on Gay’s older Beggar’s Opera, dating from the time of Handel. Every musical number is an “earworm”, laconic, hard-bitten, yet full of the easy-going charm of the 1920s. Warsaw-born Stefan Frenkel (1902–1979), took seven of the hit tunes from the Threepenny Opera and put them together into an effective suite for violin and piano. Frenkel had been concertmaster of the Dresden Philharmonie for a while and later, after fleeing from Germany, held the same position in the orchestra of New York’s “Met” opera. All his life he keenly supported the “new music”; he was the first to perform Weill’s concerto for violin and wind band, but also composed a violin concerto himself and taught in Princeton. He presented his “Seven Pieces from the Threepenny Opera” in May 1930 in Königsberg (East Prussia, now the Russian enclave Kaliningrad).

Gottfried Franz Kasparek
Translation: Celia Skrine (Pro Classics)

Close the window