Dmitri Shostakovich, Frank Bridge – Piano Sonatas – MSR Classics 1679 – 11/2021 58:12 ****½
Sometimes the key to a memorable recital is experiencing two pieces that achieve a surprising but utterly persuasive complementarity. This was my experience with a recent release on the MSR label of two big 20th century piano sonatas. The first by Shostakovich never fails to engage. It has everything of Shostakovich’s most concentrated language of the middle period. (I see the period as marked by the arrival of the largely private chamber works from the second quartet, the piano quintet up through the 8th string quartet) Sparse, contemplative textures, the nod to Klezmer folk melodies, the obsessive working over of a theme in passacaglia form, irony, melodic invention of a neo-classical type. It is a long piece at just under 27 minutes, but never drags or wanders.
The Israeli pianist Sally Pinkas makes an exceptionally good account of this piece. She lets the music speak without excessive dramatization. The rhythmic punch in the Allegretto is spot on and she savors and communicates each ironic turn, each bit of surprise, every exclamation mark.
So confident is Ms Pinkas’ reading of this piece that I wasn’t afraid to put it up against a very high measure for comparison, the 2004 Decca recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy. That performance lacks for nothing in terms of expression, but it casts no shadow on this newer recording which features a drier acoustic, less pedal and more sharply articulated lines. Those features make the very sparse Largo seem even more forlorn, with more empty space, moments when questions go unanswered, things left half said. In any case, if this performance would serve very well for a first encounter for someone unacquainted with this immediately appealing piece. While it would be an ideal second recording for comparison with the Decca issue or the recent ECM recording (by Lubimov) which although very well played, is only for those who like enormous clouds of reverb smothering everything.
The Klezmer theme which is the basis for a most ingenious set of variations in the opus 61 Sonata
Sally Pikas, a professor of Music at Dartmouth college, writes the notes for this recital and they are well done and just about sufficient for placing this music in its historical context, which happens to be the darkest moment of the Second World War. This turns out to be one possible connection to the Frank Bridge piece written twenty years earlier in the grim aftermath of the Great War.. Most listeners will be less familiar with this British composer that straddles a big stylistic divide between the Romantic idiom of late Brahms and Bruckner and the bracing modernism of the 20s . Perhaps one has heard some early Bridge that sounded like Vaughn Williams and then heard some later ‘noisier’ pieces which incorporate more of the daring tonal experiments of Berg and Scriabin. Where does this work fall between the two extremes? Well, very much on the side of the dissonant and clashing. In the liner notes this is linked with the composer’s artistic response to the horrors of the War, which he doubly deplored as a pacifist and as a friend of several close victims of the conflict.
It took Bridge a long time to write this work and it takes a long time to listen to it too. At 31: 15 it is no small commitment. The first impression one gets is that Bridge must have been a highly adept technician at the keyboard because the technical demands are equal tot he daunting levels of Scriabin, Gaspard du la Nuit and Rachmaninoff. Here the super assured technique of Ms Pinkas makes all the difference. She is able to make sense of the zigzagging voices, the thick textures and relentless hammering that animate this work. Moreover her control tone is admirable throughout.
As furious as the music is, it also feels highly concentrated. One is rewarded to the degree that one listens into its very special sound world. Nor is it without beauty. Some of the techniques seem to have been adapted from Debussy. There are also moments of reprieve; an unexpected resolution, a sigh of relief, an expression of pure wonder. His atonal language is put to the test in the very long and slow Andante as the business and virtuosity is subtracted. This simply cannot be background music so the listener needs to give this full concentration. The piano’s lower register is awfully close to one seat. I wanted to move back two rows. Also there are moments in the final Allegro when the highs seem too harsh, too bright. The piano, so perfectly suited for the first work, struggles a bit at both extremes in this more dynamically challenging test.
By the end, I was very convinced that this pairing was an inspired idea. I’ve heard Shostakovich paired so often with Prokofiev, Hindemith or Ravel but this was much better. One doesn’t even need the War connection. Both artists share a seriousness to work through a personal language to express something that simply had to be said; there is no show, or pretense or unnecessary drama in either work.
One can only be grateful to the excellent team that put this recording together and especially for the outstanding work of pianist Sally Pinkas.