Program Notes

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These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Dmitry Shostakovich
Piano Concerto No. 2

Dmitry Shostakovich was the last of the great composers who could be called both traditionalist and modern, and the first of the Russian composers who emerged because of, rather than despite, the Soviet regime. Unlike his compatriots Prokofiev and Stravinsky, both educated in Tsarist Russia, Shostakovich worked entirely under the influence of the communist government, and he struggled all his career with his genuine wish to create art for the state and the state's inability to accept any art it did not understand.

He studied with Glazunov at the Petrograd Conservatory and made his first mark in the musical world with his diploma work, the Symphony No. 1, in 1926. His early style could embrace the Soviet demand for social realism — symphonies two and three were written in honor of revolutionary events —but it was also brashly energetic, experimental, and full of sardonic humor, as in his satiric operas The Nose (1930) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District (1934).

Unfortunately, Stalin's regime was growing more rigid each year, and in 1936 Shostakovich was attacked for the previously successful Lady Macbeth due to its "petty bourgeois sensationalism." The era of artistic repression had begun. Shostakovich managed to keep the censors at bay even while striving for independence, but his style evolved into more introverted melancholy and nationalistic fervor during this period. His fifth symphony (1937), subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism," is seen by most critics as a subtle satire of the politburo's requirements in its grandiose manner and the forced rejoicing of the final movement.

Shostakovich gained international celebrity for his seventh symphony (1941), written in Leningrad while the city was under siege by the Germans, but his ninth symphony (1944) failed to please the Soviets by virtue of being light and joyous when the state wanted a monumental work in honor of Russian war victories; by 1948 he was condemned by the government again, along with Prokofiev and other prominent musicians, for "formalist perversions." He wrote mostly works glorifying Russia's history until Stalin's death in 1953, when the artistic freeze began to thaw.

His first venture back into provocative composition came in 1962 with the Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar"), based on poems by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko about the Russian oppression of the Jews. In 1966 he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, and his work evolved into a more sparsely scored, darker style, with the subject of death prominent. His Symphony No. 14 (1969) is a song-cycle on mortality, dissonant and showing little regard for the old Soviet social realism. He died in August 1975 at age 69, eulogized in the USSR for his "socialist humanism" and in the West for his fearless perseverance.

Shostakovich wrote his second piano concerto in 1957 as a birthday gift for his 19-year-old son Maxim, a pianist. The piece is full of a light-hearted energy that may owe as much to the composer's relief at the demise of Stalin as to his cheerful wishes for his son. The eager, brilliant tone and brisk tempos coupled with repeated notes similar to a bugle's call in the first and third movements are likely the reason for the Disney artists having chosen to use excerpts from this concerto in the "Steadfast Tin Soldier" segment of the recent movie Fantasia 2000. The piece avoids traditional virtuosity, perhaps to best display Maxim's particular talents, and downplays the opposition of soloist and orchestra in favor of constantly passing theme and variation between both.

Both the first and third Allegro movements have a similar structure, each contrasting bright, jaunty tunes against a sort of military tattoo complete with snare drum. The first movement contains fiery lines as well, in an ominous theme of octaves marching up and down the keyboard, and at the broad, dramatic moment when the full orchestra triumphantly roars the main melody. Shostakovich reins such moments back in, however, to let the piano restate the theme lightly, almost delicately, in an extended solo. All themes come together at the end, the piano in unison with a brilliant piccolo, the ensemble making a lighthearted march to the close.

The second movement, Andante, could easily be mistaken for a composition by Rachmaninoff in its soulful sound. Only strings, piano, and a single horn are heard exchanging tender, lyrical lines, the right hand piano part singing a plangent tune above slow arpeggios in the left. There are no fireworks, only the sort of longing melody one associates with Russian composers of an earlier, more romantic era.

The piano immediately segues into another quick-stepping movement with the second Allegro, this one quite rollicking in tone. There are several sections of rippling scales and arpeggios which, according to Shostakovich, were actually quotes from the well-known finger exercises of Hanon; including them in the concerto, the composer said, was the only way he could force his son to practice them! As in the first movement, a jolly tune trades places with a brisk theme coupled with snare, the latter scored in the unusual meter of 7/8. Strings and winds often play either theme as counterpoint to the piano's "exercises." The short movement comes to a quick climax as the ensemble, led by flute and piccolo, sounds a call and races to a galloping close.

February 27, 2001