Shostakovich: Piano Concerto no.2 in F, op.102
By: Peter Larsen
June 14, 2016
Shostakovich was born in 1906 and died in 1975, aged 68. A prolific composer, he wrote 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets as well as much music for theatre and film. It is generally thought that it is in his chamber music that he felt most able to express his inner thoughts and feelings, unhindered by political pressures.
Shostakovich’s formidable talent was noticed early by the Stalinist regime, which demanded that music and the other arts should reflect positively the aspirations and achievements of the Communist Party. Since the media and in particular the Party’s official mouthpiece, the newspaper Pravda, were subject to the whims of Stalin and the Party, Shostakovich’s reputation as a Soviet artist was determined largely by attitudes and opinions expressed in Pravda. As Shostakovich was unwilling or unable to conform to the prevailing political and artistic dogma of the State, he experienced many years of disapproval and censure. For much of his life he lived with the possibility of exile in Siberia, an anxiety shared by many fellow artists.
"Given that many of Shostakovich's works display elements of satire, it is possible that here the composer is satirizing his own liking for extremes of virtuosic display"
The second piano concerto was composed in 1957 for the 19th birthday of his son Maxim, who gave the first performance on the occasion of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. The work opens in a somewhat Tchaikovskyian way with a jaunty tune for bassoon and other woodwind, chromatic at times. This tune is taken up by piano with unison octaves; it is immediately overtaken by a vigorous, percussive theme for solo piano, with light orchestral accompaniment, including side-drum. As with much of the composer’s piano music, much use is made of the upper reaches of the keyboard range. The percussive theme rapidly evolves into a brisk, march-like idea for piano and orchestra with high piccolo, followed by a discursive lyrical theme for piano, still in unison octaves and moving from minor to major mode. The mood changes to one of wild vigour, with much syncopation, heavy double octaves for piano bass, shrill woodwind, and a rapid staccato piano motif. Out of this seeming confusion a broad triumphal motif for orchestra emerges, to be followed by a delicate semi-chromatic melody in two-part counterpoint. Near the end of the movement, prominent piccolo, a recall of the rapid percussive piano theme, the triumphal return of the march-like idea and the introduction of xylophone combine to create a sense of heightened excitement. The movement ends abruptly.
Many maintain that the second movement is the high point of the concerto. It commences with a serene, deeply emotive theme for muted strings, enhanced by surprising but effective key changes. In a spirit of seemingly timeless calm, the piano enters with a contemplative melody based on the opening theme, accompanied quietly by the strings. The sense of enthralled stillness, generated by lean, mainly two-part writing for piano with muted strings, creates a spirit of almost religious intensity. In the midst of a quiet recall of the piano entry, two unexpected semitonal drops in tonality prepare the way for the introduction of a vigorous and semi-chromatic piano theme. This, with orchestra, signifies the commencement of an unbridled third movement, characterized by increasingly rapid and emphatic piano figuration, in association with vivid instrumentation, notable especially for prominent timpani, xylophone and piccolo passages. A short interlude is followed by a resumption and extension of the previous passages, now with emphatic octave passages which, combined with a forceful bass piano theme, is accompanied by horn and side drum. A sense of imminent climax is generated. Given that many of Shostakovich’s works display elements of satire, it is possible that here the composer is satirizing his own liking for extremes of virtuosic display. In the context of a spirit of unrestrained virtuosity the movement, and indeed the whole concerto, come to a triumphant end.
Peter Larsen presented Chamber Music and Song for over two decades and is a 3MBS Presenter Emeritus.