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Dimitri Shostakovich
Piano Concertos No. 1 for piano, trumpet, and string orchestra, Op. 35; No. 2 in F major, Op. 102. Sonata for violin and piano in F major, Op 134
Alexander Melnikov (piano), Isabelle Faust (violin), Jeroen Berwarts (trumpet), Teodor Currentzis conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

 

  The young Shostakovich proudly called himself "a son of Mahler." It was, of course, Mahler who first gave his "son" the courage to juxtapose wildly opposed emotional registers in the same work. The clash of contrasting moods would become characteristic of most of his major compositions. In the First Symphony, for example, the freewheeling parody of the first two movements (the young firebrand thumbing his nose at respectable elders) abruptly changes into something much darker with the beginning of the third. Or take the Sixth Symphony: the static, heavy, tragic opening largo gives way to lighthearted comedy, two unequivocally celebratory scherzos based on folk themes.

But no work, early or late, deploys changes more ongoing, profound, or disruptive than the Op. 35 Concerto for trumpet and string orchestra. Here you'll find shameless slapstick, rollicking beer-hall polkas, a series of musical parodies all freely interspersed with passages that are at times ambiguous, abrasive, or sullenly melancholic. And as if this isn't enough, you also get the ironic, wise guy sniping of the solo trumpet's ongoing commentary. I've always suspected that this work was influenced by the composer's first job, accompanying silent movies on the piano. At times the concerto does indeed seem like a silent film with accelerated mood-swings.

Most performers approach this kaleidoscopic work as lighter fare, only spiced with many sudden reversals and surprises. Fire-breathing, virtuoso pianists like Marc-Andre Hamelin, Yefim Bonfman, Marta Agerich, and (more recently) Denis Matsuev present it as a series of technical challenges brilliantly surmounted. I'm still partial to Valentina Lisitsa's high-spirited, high-velocity recording, sadly out of print, and Leonard Bernstein's cheeky affair (with Andre Previn at the keyboard). But in fact I can't think of a bad recording of this justly popular work: even the most literal-minded musicians should be able to make it work.

This performance, however, is anything but literal-minded. Melnikov and Currentzs play the more lyric passages with a starkly tragic undertone and the faster ones with a hectoring, panicky desperation. The resulting concerto, for all its burlesque, sounds rather unsettling. More than in any other performance I've heard, the surprises produce an almost existential unease; the sense we're about to jump the rails, stumbling off into the abyss. Though such a "revisionist" approach doesn't really challenge my allegiance to Lisitsa or Previn/Bernstein, I was very much taken with it, oftentimes on the edge of my seat. Both Melnikov and Currentzs let me hear details I'd somehow missed: the sardonic donkey brays in the first movement, for example. Nor have I ever heard the andante teeter so precariously on the verge of tragedy. The concluding allegro has all the thrills you want from this music, but here, it's also just a little terrifying.

The Second Concerto is at the opposite end of the spectrum: as straightforward and direct a work as Shostakovich ever composed. Written for his son Maxim, who was 19 at the time, the concerto poses no great technical hurdles, and (so unlike the First) is firmly situated on the sunny side of the street. The first movement is playful and full of positive energy; the finale unashamedly festive. There's also a lovely andante that is clearly intended to echo Rachmaninoff, and does so without the parody you'd expect. It is, quite simply, one of the composer's most ravishing creations; easily worth the price of the disc if you don't already know it. Here again, Melinkov and Currentzis play up the contrasting elements, and add some edgy syncopations to the mix. But basically they give us another excellent reading of the work, fully capturing its good humor and beauty. I've never been able to shake my long-standing allegiance to Bernstein's recording (this time as both conductor and soloist); he's laugh-out-loud funny in the outer movements, and altogether heartbreaking in the andante. Still, if you're looking for a more recent performance in great sound, this is well nigh irresistible.

For me, the fly in the ointment is the inclusion of the Op. 134 Violin Sonata. Certainly this late, bleak, death-burdened work makes a provocative counterweight to the two concertos. It is also one of the composer's supreme masterpieces, perhaps a more important work than either of the concertos. My problem is Isabella Faust, a performer I just don't get. I've now heard several recordings featuring her work, each more underwhelming than the last. She can manage the notes her technique is not in question; but (for me at least) she never gets under the skin of the music she's performing. Her interpretations have no depth or special insight. And so it is here: a shame really, because Melinkov is a very expressive and engaging partner. Still, Faust/Melinkov don't seriously misrepresent the music, and, if you don't know it, they provide an acceptable introduction. You can then move on up to better recordings: Oleg Kagan (with Sviatislov Richter) on the Live Classics label, or Daniel Hope on Nimbus.

If you already have a version of these concertos that appeals to you, I'm not sure you need this one; but if you do opt for it, you certainly won't be disappointed. If you don't know these works at all (and don't mind the addition of the Violin Sonata), then I highly recommend Melnikov/Currentzis, both for their youthful brio and the very realistic, carefully balanced sound. And if you just happen to come across the Sony disc that includes the Bernstein performances mentioned above, don't hesitate. It contains an irresistible bonus: a snappy, stylish, definitive performance of Poulenc's delightful Concerto for Two Pianos.

 

 

Performance:
Concertos No. 1 and 2:

Violin Sonata:

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Concertos No. 1 and 2:

Violin Sonata:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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