Praga collects a generous portion of the Dmitry Shostakovich legacy in his pianist capacity, working with gifted friends.

SHOSTAKOVICH plays SHOSTAKOVICH: From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102; Piano Concerto No. 1 in c minor, Op. 35; Concertino for 2 Pianos in a minor, Op. 94; Piano Quintet in G Major, Op. 57; Cello Sonata in d minor, Op. 40; 4 Preludes for Piano, Op. 34 (arr. violin and piano); 3 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 – Dmitry Shostakovich, p./ Dmitry Tsyganov, v./ Mstislav Rostropovich, cello/ Maxim Shostakovich, p./ Beethoven String Q./ Nina L’Volvna Dorliak, sop./ Zara Dolukhanova, mezzo-sop./ Alexei Maslennikov, tenor/ Moscow Radio Sym. Orch./ Alexander Gauk/ Moscow Philharmonic Orch./ Samuel Samosud – Praga Digitals PRD 250 365.66 (2 CDs), 69:04, 73:06  (11/4/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:

In the interest of “authenticity,” few collections can compete with these assembled recordings by Dmitry Shostakovich, 1955 and 1957, in which he appears in his most famous instrumental guise, at the keyboard. As a human being, Shostakovich harbored sympathies for the oppressed Jewish populations of both Nazi and Soviet regimes, and his 1948 cycle of eleven songs From Jewish Poetry (15 January 1955) had to wait for its public premiere. Conforming to Soviet policy and political pressure, the verses edited by Y.M. Sokolov – specifically, the first eight songs – deal with Czarist Russian miseries and privations. The last three intend to demonstrate social improvements, the Stalinist era having eliminated all ills. Shostakovich incorporates the modes of Jewish music into his melodic lines, utilizing acciaccaturas to add exotic, pungent color.  Besides the obvious agony that suffuses much of the poetry, there exists that biting satire inherent in Shostakovich, as in the No. 7,Song of Hardship,” a tenor scherzo depicting the plights of the poor, who must jump and dance to the tune of meager opportunity. The “Winter” (No. 8) song invokes a merciless blizzard and its capacity to destroy destitute people. All three of  the voices collaborate in a litany of woe. The sudden beatitude of Soviet collective life appears in No. 9 “The Good Life,” sung by the tenor’s enchanted worker. “The Young Girl’s Song” (No. 10) sports her carefree new life. Finally, the three voices combine for “Happiness,” a blissful hymn to the new state. But we hear much of this “official” rapture with an ear of skepticism, recalling the remark in Testimony concerning the finale of the Fifth Symphony: “You will rejoice!”

The F Major Piano Concerto (10 May 1957) Shostakovich conceived for his son Maxim’s nineteenth birthday, declaring the work had “no redeeming artistic merits.”   Shostakovich and conductor Gauk reveal few reservations about the fiery virtuosity required to perform the work, however, and they make the fur fly. The music moves in the first movement between an aggressively buoyant F Major to a melancholy d minor.  The move to a jubilant D Major seems both natural and artfully-executed. The c minor Andante conveys a pensively lyrical atmosphere, at times quite enchanted. The attacca third movement Allegro demonstrates many clever color devices, set in duple time with pentatonic scales. When the secondary theme enters, it plays in 7/8 time and proceeds to a virtuoso F Major coda. Conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein took a shine to this often frothy display piece and would conduct it from the keyboard.

The 1935 Piano Concerto No. 1 in c minor had been intended as either a duo concerto for piano and trumpet or trumpet concerto proper. In its final form, the concerto features the piano definitely – and Shostakovich appears in top form – with the trumpet adding blazing punctuations. Bold and sarcastically witty, the concerto no less declaims in lyrical, passionate terms which conductor Samosud draws from the Moscow Philharmonic and trumpet principal Josif Volovnik, quite affecting in the Lento. In four movements, the work might be the Shostakovich equivalent of the Second Concerto by Russian enfant terrible Prokofiev. In the last movement Allegro con brio the duo-concertante aspect of the writing bursts forth, immediately after the piano cadenza. I recall having been first sold on this tantalizing opus by a performance from Philadelphia with the late William Kapell at the keyboard.

The Concertino for 2 Pianos premiered in Moscow 8 November 1954, with Maxim Shostakovich and Alla Maloletkova, while Maxim had been a student at the Central Music School. Here at the Conservatory (1957), father and son provide a healthy, robust realization of the work’s unfolding sonata form, prefaced by an introduction. The music finds motifs from zesty, pesant march rhythms and a hymnody in the manner of the slow movement of the Beethoven G Major Concerto.

The Shostakovich 1940 Piano Quintet (perf. 10 May 1957) had its premiere just before the Nazi invasion.  The composer played the premiere in Moscow on 23 November, 1940 with members of the Beethoven Quartet.  (Its members were lifelong friends; they also premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets.)  Critical and popular reaction to the new piece proved happily unanimous: the Quintet, hailed as a masterpiece, earned Shostakovich the Stalin Prize of 100,000 rubles; at the time, this was the largest sum of money ever awarded for a piece of music. A medley of musical styles, the Quintet opens with homages to Bach and Hindemith, coupling the outer movements and inserting a vigorous Scherzo: Allegretto in the middle. The keyboard part moves polyphonically, sometimes separating each of the hands for a fugal entry and so achieving a six-part harmony. The slow Fugue: Adagio casts a reflective eye back to late Beethoven, especially his Quartet No. 14. Slow tempos and consistency of pulse mark the work’s solemn progression, except for the middle movement; rarely does the full complement of instruments burst forth for emphasis. The music of the assertive, somewhat martial fifth movement Finale: Allegretto contains some wit in the course of its relative pastoral serenity. Violin solo Dmitry Tsyganov distinguishes himself in the Lento movement.

Though the 1934 Cello Sonata owes its conception to the influence of cellist Viktor Kubatsky, the artist most closely associated with this extraordinary chamber work remains Mstislav Rostropovich, who contributed to the final form of the work in 1957. Apocrypha has it that the first movement has its melancholy inspiration in an argument between Shostakovich and his wife Nina. The second movement, a true tour de force, moves with a sardonic fleetness that might parody the Parisian style of Prokofiev. The cello must sing at extreme registers in the Largo, with the designation pppp at measure 83. A richly colored meditation, the music demands from both performers and listeners a degree of introspection profoundly affecting. The performance (10 May 1957) captures the savage, sardonic side of the composer in the final Allegretto, a rondo in which the Shostakovich piano dominates a weird moto perpetuo that the cello follows rather gruffly. Eventually, Rostropovich asserts his own mania on the figures, and the end result suddenly vanishes, ghostlike.

First violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, Dmitry Tsiganov, and Dmitry Shostakovich collaborate in four of the brief Op. 34 Preludes (1957), beginning with the sultry No. 10 in c-sharp minor. The ensuing b-flat minor carries a martial gait, now made pungent by the duo. Strident ostinati define the D-flat Prelude No. 15, a folk dance in swirling colors. The No. 24 in d minor stumbles as a drunken march with grim bass harmonies. The program ends with Shostakovich at the solo keyboard (1957) in his 1950-1951 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, of which he plays Nos. 5, 23, and 3. No. 5 in D pits a pastoral motion in the Prelude against a craggy Fugue, rather punishing in terms of syncopations. No. 23 in F Prelude projects a romantic beauty and simplicity, much in the manner of a Bach aria. The ensuing three-voice Fugue has a brittle, severe cast, much of it reminiscent of a Bach toccata. The G Major (No. 3) opens with stately double octaves against an active, bass-heavy counter-subject. The Fugue in 6/8 proves just as hectic, bouncy in the fashion of Bach’s Jig-Fugue. As a practiced pianist, Shostakovich does not lack for deft fingers.

—Gary Lemco