Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Concerto Guide: Shostakovich, Piano Concerto no. 2, op. 102

I mentioned last week that I am running up against the copyright wall as the concertos from now on are all likely to still be under copyright and therefore not obtainable from IMSLP. True, I could and should simply order study scores from the publishers but they take weeks (if not months) to arrive and are quite costly. This blog has a pretty tight budget as I do not collect revenue from anywhere, but just do it on my own nickel. But I don't entirely discount the possibility of ordering the score of a recent concerto if it seems really interesting. The Violin Concerto by Salonen might be a candidate.

However, I have managed to find a two-piano reduction of the Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major by Shostakovich. He didn't rate this work terribly highly himself. As Laurel Fay notes in her biography of Shostakovich:
A week after its completion on 5 February 1957, Shostakovich pooh-poohed it in a letter to Denisov as a work with no redeeming artistic merits. What he did not say was that the concerto ... had been written as a vehicle for his son Maxim, then in his final year of study at the Central Music School.
She goes on to tell us that Maxim premiered the piece on his 19th birthday in May 1957.
Critics were greatly taken with the concerto's charming simplicity, carefree spirit, and lyrical warmth.
Say what? That doesn't sound much like Shostakovich whose music is usually better described as being dark, tortured, sardonic and depressive. But it is undeniable that the Second Piano Concerto is a very cheerful work--and why wouldn't it be? Shostakovich was obviously delighted with his son's achievement in music and delighted in writing a suitably exuberant work for him. It is interesting that the only other piano concerto by Shostakovich, which I posted about here, is also a very cheerful work, one that he wrote for himself when he was a young man of 27. These two light-hearted piano concertos contrast considerably with the ones for cello and violin, which are much more substantial, and darker, works. I don't have the scores, but if I come across them, I would certainly post something on them.

But back to the piano concerto. Here is the opening theme, which we hear a portion of in the orchestra before it is stated fully in the piano:

Which is a perfectly normal theme in F major that might have been written by Haydn except for the fact that it goes astray, wandering into D flat for a measure or so before closing in F. This little divergence turns an 8 measure period into 10 measures. Rhythmically it is a bit odd as well. I suppose that it would be easy to call this neo-classical though by this point, that phase was long over. There are no substantial contrasts in the movement; the second theme is not so different from the first, if rhythmically smoother:

This theme as well has a tendency to wander into D flat major. There is another theme in D minor:

All these themes have a bit of a family resemblance. A modulation to, well call it C major (or G major, or some mode or other) as the one-flat key signature disappears, signals an energetic development section:

In which the piano double-octaves its way in a slightly nutty fashion while the orchestra states the opening theme. This development gets more and more interesting as the crazed fairground mood becomes more intense. The orchestra comes to the fore after quite a lot of virtuoso piano writing with this hymn-like theme:

Click to enlarge
Which is, of course, an augmented version of the D minor theme we heard before, now in major. This is followed by an extensive cadenza for the piano using the themes we have heard. Following this, inevitably, is the recapitulation with the orchestra recapitulating the themes while the piano offers ornamental decorations above.

All in all, there isn't much wrong with this piece. Sure, it's cheerful, but it was a happy occasion and even Shostakovich is allowed to write the occasional cheerful piece. It breaks no new ground, which is reason enough to condemn it if you are a card-carrying member of the avant-garde, but it is charming and listenable--just like a piano concerto by Mozart.

Let's have a listen. This is the composer himself playing the concerto with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, André Cluytens, conductor


Marc Puckett said...

A tangent at the very beginning, sorry: what is the difference between a study score and, say, a composer's score? I have been on the verge of buying a couple of 'study scores' that cost, oh, ten bucks-- they were for shorter pieces not symphonies-- but haven't because, well, it is probably cheaper to print out the IMSLP pdf, but that may or may not be as legible as the study score from a publisher etc etc. Is it just the size?

Rickard Dahl said...

It's a wonderful concerto. It's a shame that Shostakovich described it as having "no redeeming artistic merits". I guess by modernist standards that may be true but by aesthetic standards it is far from true. The first and third movements are very energetic but the second movement sounds especially romantic, almost like something Chopin could have written. Either way, all the movements are very nice.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm not sure what a composer's score is, but a study score is a small format edition suitable for study but too small to use in a concert.

Rickard, Shostakovich is much more self-effacing than most composers. He also said that he never managed to write a good symphonic allegro!

Christine Lacroix said...

I enjoyed it. Thanks!

Maybe I'm imagining it but it seems there is a little something starting at 1:10 that
reminds me of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRltNxBvMDg. I keep going back and forth between the two to try to catch it or figure out what it is.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, you're not imagining anything. Both movements are Shostakovich in his wacky major mode and have a similar "tone". The piece you quote, the Piano Trio in E minor, is one of his greatest pieces of chamber music, but I would encourage you to check out a different performance, such as this one. It starts with the first movement which has a very eerie opening:


Rickard Dahl said...

@Bryan, how does his wacky major mode work (i.e. what is the scale structure)?

Bryan Townsend said...

You could look at the first theme from the concerto for an example. It begins solidly in F major, but bolts off to the side into D flat major!

Bryan Townsend said...

The wacky part is as much in the jaunty or sardonic rhythms combined with major scale segments that jump into different and unexpected keys.

Christine Lacroix said...

Just found your comment. I thought you hadn't answered because I was so far off base. Glad to hear I'm not completely crazy. I'm listening now to the other performance you suggested. Very different interpretation. I like it!

Christine Lacroix said...

By the way, did you recommend a different performance because the one I posted wasn't very good?

Bryan Townsend said...

Two reasons: your clip was of some fairly minor artists and I suggested some very major artists. Just a difference in aesthetic heft. Also, the one I recommended is a complete performance.

Christine Lacroix said...

Yes, I really enjoyed the clip you recommended. I had looked for other clips but hadn't liked them much. You're right, there is everything and anything on YouTube. It's hard to know how to look. The performance you suggested did seem very mature and professional.