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Janáček philharmonic OstravaReview on the Shostakovich Piano concertos CD

Review on the Shostakovich Piano concertos CD

(review is taken from the portal MusicWeb International, June 6, 2021, author Colin C.F. Chow)

For an artist so deeply affected by the political climate around him, and especially for one so able to capture the shifting tides of personal fortune (or often rather misfortune) with notes on a stave, these three works represent remarkable snapshots of the most turbulent decades of Shostakovich’s life.

The first concerto, written shortly before Shostakovich’s first denunciation in 1936, is everything one might expect from the young, brilliant composer, filled with sardonic wit, musical quotations and virtuoso sparkle. Trpčeski and Macelaru introduce a surprising degree of chamber-like intimacy into the opening passages; the care with which the first melody is coaxed from the piano and the restraint with which the orchestra responds in turn is a world away from most extrovert accounts. This is an interpretation which brings out more of the lyricism of the Romantic era past than the individuality which Shostakovich pioneered; for an excellent account of the latter approach, listen to Alexander Melnikov with Teodor Currentzis and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi HMC902104), the unashamedly brittle timbres and rhythms and abrupt tempo changes taking individuality to an extreme, but to truly masterful effect.

The second movement, done well, is hauntingly beautiful. I mentioned previously Trpčeski’s care over the tone he elicits from the Steinway instrument, and that tone pays dividends here – most remarkable is the weightlessness of the sound in the latter half of the movement, complemented by the muted trumpet of Andrei Kavalinski in an almost otherworldly duet. The interplay is excellent, with just that touch of sympathetic give in tempo; under the superlative work of the two soloists, one does just wish for a little more shaping from the orchestral accompaniment. The final two movements exhibit more of the excellent solo work as seen previously, and the wit and sparkle are certainly brought out, but the difficulty is, as ever, in drawing the disparate elements of the finale into a coherent narrative – a little more momentum and direction would have been appreciated.

Onto the second item in this chronologically arranged disc, and the tone of the Second Piano Trio clearly betrays the dark turn in the composer’s life in the past decade, the horrors of the Second World War atop the ever-present reminder of his own changing fortunes as Stalin tightened his grip on the country. The opening lament in the cello’s harmonics are glassy and eerie; as the other instruments join, the haunting beauty of the tune in fugato, here always played with the utmost attention to tone and balance, evokes a scene of desolation. As the momentum picks up through the movement, unease is the unifying factor throughout passages of defiance and despondency; the performance holds this in abundance whilst never sacrificing tone.

Shostakovich’s scherzos contain some of his most original content, and the key to their performance is not to be afraid of making the music sound ugly – often this is precisely the intended effect and when the music is at its most powerful. The abrasive and grating tone of the strings, coupled with the brisk, almost unhinged tempo, sounds every bit the grotesque parody that it should.

The third movement Passacaglia – beginning funereally, building to a deeply disturbing climax, followed by a passage of terrifying desolation, this is music which should not leave the listener settled. The latter section truly stood out, and I found myself straining, clinging on to every dissonant pianissimo chord, manipulated masterfully by the trio, each in tune with each other and the precise balancing act required to evoke maximum emotional devastation. The final movement, played attacca, begins with a child-like tune, which is gradually twisted beyond recognition to a climax, a furious recapitulation of the first movement theme. The listener hears glimpses of past movements, alternating between rage, mourning and exhaustion at breakneck speed, before a breakdown of an ending haunted by the ghosts of the past. Listening to this work through leaves one drained; if emotional effect is the standard by which music should be judged, this is composition of the highest order; to say that this performance does the work justice is high praise indeed.

The Second Piano Concerto, yet another decade on, is once again completely different in temperament. Oft dismissed, indeed by the composer himself, as being of ‘no redeeming artistic merit’, and ‘easy listening’ it may be, but the piece provides a glimpse of Shostakovich’s humour; perhaps still not entirely content, with the similarity between the first movement and the Tocsin of the 11th Symphony a reminder of the looming storm clouds of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but certainly a shift in tone in a post-Stalin world.

I prefer the more pointed approach of Melnikov in the first movement; Trpčeski plays excellently but does not extract the same variety of colour from the keyboard. However, his care over tone which permeates the rest of this disc pays dividends in the second movement, where the air of dignified nostalgia, combined with the grace of the melody, is deeply moving. The final movement is a show of pianistic fireworks, festivities infused with a healthy dose of wit – a parody of technical exercises, a joke for his son’s graduation. Technical brilliance and said wit are certainly provided for in this performance, with Macelaru and the Janáček Philharmonic bestowing solid accompaniment throughout.

From these three very different portraits of an extraordinary composer the trio stands out as an excellent performance of one of Shostakovich’s finest, underappreciated works.

Colin C.F. Chow