Sunday 27 November 2016

Praga Digital’s new release Shostakovich plays Shostakovich is an absolute gold mine of Shostakovich performances, remarkably well re-mastered and quite irresistible

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was first taught piano by his mother before entering the Leningrad Conservatory at the age of just 13. He soon became a very good pianist, improvising as well as playing at family gatherings. After the death of his father, he played in cinemas in order to supplement the family’s income.

From 1923 Shostakovich started to perform in public, playing his own works and those of the classical and romantic era. With ideas of becoming a concert pianist he was chosen to be one of the Soviet team to take part in the 1927 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Despite much preparation Shostakovich was not awarded a prize. The result was that Shostakovich lost his desire to become a concert pianist, concentrating instead on composition.

Nevertheless, Shostakovich continued to perform his own works until ill health prevented this. His last concert was in Gorky on 23rd February 1964 at a festival of his music arranged by the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich and Boris Guzman, conductor of the Gorky Philharmonic Orchestra.

There have been a number of recordings of Shostakovich playing his own works particularly his Preludes and Fugues Op.87. New to me are the broadcast recordings dating from 1955 and 1957 just issued by Praga Digitals on 2 CDs, re-mastered and edited, of Shostakovich playing both of his Piano Concertos along with From Jewish Folk Poetry and his Piano Quintet and Cello Sonata as well as some Preludes and Fugues.

PRD 250 365.66

There are many fine moments in the song cycle for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and piano, From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op.79 (1949) that opens the first CD. The composer brings a haunting quality to much of the Lament for a Dead Child with the soloists drawing out some disturbing harmonies, each individually very fine. The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt is rhythmically pointed with the composer finding a natural simplicity to which the soloists add a terrific character. Later there are moments of terrific passion in Before a long separation, pianist and soloists bringing a real emotional pull, finding so many subtleties. The composer adds a special touch to Song of Hardship, a real vibrancy.

The 1955 recording is remarkably good with much depth.

Shostakovich is soloist in his Piano Concerto No.2 in F major, Op.102 (1957) with Alexander Gauk and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, an irresistible partnership. The composer keeps a fast tempo to drive the music forward in the Allegro, a real urgency, full of verve. There is an Andante that really delivers on poetry and poise, never sentimental, allowing the music to keep a forward push, beautiful in its directness. Finally there is a rollicking Allegro showing the composer to be a formidable pianist. Gauk provides a phenomenal accompaniment in one of the liveliest and most impressive performances on record.

The recording is sometimes a little thin but is nevertheless impressive for a 1957 radio broadcast.

Shostakovich here provides a spontaneity in the Allegretto of his Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.35 (1933) that doesn’t often appear on other recordings. There is a certain wildness, aided and abetted by a fine trumpeter in Josif Volovmk who brings a very Russian vibrato. The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Samuil Samosud. Again in the Lento – attacca the composer brings much poetry through a directness of approach, slowly and impressively building the movement through some intensely dramatic bars with Volovmk’s trumpet adding much of a lament. After an often dark and dramatic Moderato – attacca, they spring into a light and fleet Allegro con brio with more scintillating playing from Shostakovich and, indeed, from Volovmk and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. All seem to be enjoying this rather burlesque finale immensely.

The recording here is most definitely thinner and reverberant but still more than acceptable. There is some audible audience noise.  

Father and son, Dmitri and the 15 year old student Maxim join forces for the Concertino for Two Pianos in A minor, Op. 94 (1954) with a quite lovely Adagio, beautifully paced, before a wonderfully fleet Allegretto. Both pianists provide some impressive playing, though one can hear the elder musician providing some of the most fluent and expansive, indeed virtuosic passages. This is a rarity in more ways than one and with a very good recording made in 1957 at the Moscow Conservatory whilst Maxim was still a student at the Central Music School.

To have the composer with the Beethoven Quartet playing the Piano Quintet in G major, Op.57 (1940) that opens Disc: 2 is quite special. Remarkably well recorded live in 1957 they bring a wonderful authenticity, a real depth and character to the Prelude: Lento. In the Fugue: Adagio they achieve moments of heart rending emotion. The Scherzo: Allegretto brings some stunningly intense, vibrant playing before an Intermezzo: Lento that has an inevitable forward movement, often touched with intense grief. They run gently into the Finale: Allegretto before gaining in urgency only to find the opening flow to run to the coda. This is a quite wonderful performance.

It is a great artist and friend who joins Shostakovich in the Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934), Mstislav Rostropovich. Here we have another remarkably vivid recording made live on the same day as the Quintet. Both find an intuitive response in the Moderato, Rostropovich extracting a quite wonderful emotional pull, both bringing a natural freedom and spontaneity. They are quite stunning in the Moderato con moto driving this music forward through some intensely played bars.

Rostropovich builds a tremendous Largo, extracting so much intense feeling, with a terrific tone right across the spectrum, Shostakovich responding with an equal intensity. The composer brings a lovely light touch to the Allegretto to which the cellist responds with a terrific flair as the music soon hurtles ahead. Here are two of the finest figures from 20th century music bringing such panache and virtuosity.

Violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov arranged Shostakovich’s piano Preludes, Op.34 for violin and piano and here plays four of them with the composer, recorded in 1957. They are fascinating arrangements opening with No. 10 in C sharp minor where Tsyganov brings exquisite delicacy, timbres and textures with the composer adding a wonderfully subtle accompaniment. Both bring a fine vibrancy to No. 16 in B flat minor with wonderfully controlled dynamics. No. 15 in D-flat major finds Shostakovich taking a terrific piano line around the violin before No. 24 in D minor has a fine rhythmic phrasing, full of wit and sparkle.

It is good to have three of the Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 (1950-1) in such clear recordings with a great presence. The composer brings a wonderful sense of gentle nostalgia to the Prelude of No. 5 in D major, quite wonderful before rising in the Fugue through passages of fast moving fugal writing with a real freedom and spontaneity.  He brings such breadth and thoughtfulness in the Prelude of No. 23 in F major, running through an absolutely terrific Fugue, so gentle and poised yet with an underlying forward drive. No. 3 in G major brings great authority and strength in the Prelude before skipping with such ease and delight into the Fugue where he shows exceptional phrasing and control of individual lines. Absolutely terrific. 

This new release is an absolute gold mine of Shostakovich performances, remarkably well re-mastered and quite irresistible. It is not clear from the booklet if these are stereo recordings. The cover of the booklet has the banner ‘Genuine Stereo Lab’ suggesting that they are. They certainly have a depth and breadth that sounds to me like stereo. There are useful booklet notes but no texts for the Op.79 song cycle.

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