Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No 2, Etc / Scherbakov

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SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Sonata No. 2. 3 Pieces. A Child’s Exercise Book. Murzilka. Preludes, op. 2/2,3,4,15,18. The Limpid Stream: Excerpts (trans. Shostakovich) Konstantin Scherbakov (pn) NAXOS 8.570092 (58:26)

During his lifetime, the artistic reputation of Dmitri Shostakovich was closely related to political ideology. Current revisionism, pace Solomon Volkov’s questionable edition of the composer’s own testimony, would have us believe that Shostakovich was a secretive anti-communist, filling his music with code to such an effect. There is also, however, ample evidence that the great man was an original Bolshevik who happened to clash with oppressive bureaucracies, especially during the Stalin years, which coincided with the mature period of his output. The controversy is still unresolved, but at least the actual music is no longer married to the debate. As we pass the 100-year mark for Shostakovich, his reputation is stronger than ever, not only for the great symphonies that established his fame, but also the smaller works, most notably the string quartets, his lovely vocal output, and—of the material at hand—solo piano music.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 is by far the most substantial piece here. It comes from 1943, but aside from the underlying melancholy that is heard in most of Shostakovich’s work, this does not sound like a war piece. It has a slithering beauty about it and a subtle complexity that reminds us that the composer, who gave the premiere of the piece, was himself an excellent pianist. The construction emphasizes the composer’s devotion to classical forms, as expressed in his deeply personal voice. The first and second movements are rather inward and even mysterious, the Largo sparse nearly to the point of minimalism. The finale is a typical Shostakovich technical tour de force , a theme and variations set of tremendous ingenuity and power.

The rest of the program is enjoyable, but second rate in the composer’s output. The Limpid Stream is a ballet score from 1935 (here, obviously, reduced to solo piano) meant to follow the dictates of socialist realism. Ironically, it was premiered just before the infamous denunciation of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , but it, too, failed the Stalinist standard for music of the people, and was also criticized as such in print. The music is hardly threatening, being essentially a collection of lively dances, with little of the bucolic nature deceptively suggested by the title. The rest of the music here is basically juvenilia, written either by a very young Shostakovich, or, in the case of A Child’s Exercise Book , for children, specifically his daughter Galina. Murzilka , probably written in the mid to late 1940s, is one of his brilliant little dashes, clocking in at 49 seconds.

Siberian-born Konstantin Scherbakov, who is doing a series of the solo piano music of Shostakovich for Naxos, seems to be the ideal interpreter of this music. His technique can produce both delicacy and brute power, and he has the full measure of the composer’s dramatic sensibility. Johan Schmidt, on the Cypres label, finds a delicacy in the music that is disarming, but not as true to the spirit. Ashkenazy, on Decca, is somewhere in between, with, not surprisingly, brave and dazzling playing that is more cosmopolitan than Scherbakov’s. Both Schmidt and Ashkenazy have more compelling overall programs than Scherbakov, the former including the complete preludes, the latter with a diverse group of shorter works. But the Decca release is twice the price of the Naxos, and the SACD sound is not noticeably more realistic than the Naxos. So, even though the Scherbakov program is of decidedly mixed strength, I would not hesitate to recommend it for the sonata alone. The rest is whipped cream.

FANFARE: Peter Burwasser

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570092

  • UPC: 747313009275

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Performer: Konstantin Scherbakov