Shostakovich & Ravel / Piano Concerto No. 2 & more / Bernstein – Reviewed in 2011

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

Super Hot Stamper or BETTER sound for the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No.2, which is positively SUPERB on this later Columbia pressing. It’s shockingly transparent, rich and sweet, with wonderful depth and clarity. Where is the shrill, upper-midrangy, glary, hard sound we’ve come to expect from ’60s Columbia recordings like this one?

Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you. Right here on this very side two, the Ravel side. It’s typical Columbia from the period, with nasally, pinched upper-mids, the kind which make the strings and brass screech and blare at you in the worst way.

If Columbia’s goal was to drive the audiophile music lover screaming from the room, on this side two they have succeeded brilliantly. On side one they’ve failed; it sounds great!

Side One

A++ or better. Right-on-the-money tonality from top to bottom. This is a Columbia? It sounds like a good RCA or London!

Side Two

No real grade. It may be better than average but it’s not much better than average, and average for Columbia is not very good to start with. Great performance though. There is a youtube video of Bernstein playing the piece, brilliantly of course, that you might want to check out.

Wikipedia’s Entry

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102, by Dmitri Shostakovich was composed in 1957 for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. Maxim premiered the piece during his graduation at the Moscow Conservatory. It is an uncharacteristically cheerful piece, much more so than most of Shostakovich’s works.

Instrumentation

The work is scored for solo piano, three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, timpani, snare drum and strings.

Movements

The concerto lasts around 20 minutes and has three movements, with the second movement played attacca, thereby moving directly into the third (although the second movement does come to an acceptable resolution in C minor, such that the third movement is not entirely necessary to bring the music to a conclusion):

Allegro

The jolly main theme of the first movement is played by the bassoon, which is soon accompanied by the clarinets and oboes. The piano enters unobtrusively with an answering theme, played as single notes in both hands an octave apart. Soon, the piano picks up the pace with the British sea shanty melody ‘Drunken Sailor’. A new theme in d minor, unisons two octaves apart on the piano, gives an oriental, songlike effect, winding down to nothing when an abrupt blast from the orchestra leads into tumultuous and jumping octaves in the lower piano register while the orchestra plays the original piano melody fortissimo. This section is marked by the occasional appearance of the soloist in the upper register playing the ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ theme, as well as tumbling chromatic chords and runs. The piano builds in a triplet pattern to introduce the recapitulation of the main theme in a triumphant tutti. At the climax, everything comes to a silent pause, and the piano comes in with an almost fugue-like counterpoint solo. After a minute of the fugue, the orchestra comes back in playing the melody in the high winds. The orchestra builds on the main melody while the piano plays scales and tremolos, which lead into a joyous few lines of chords and octaves by the piano, with the main theme finally resurfacing and bringing the movement to a bouncy close.

Andante

The second movement is far more subdued and romantic, almost as if Shostakovich tried his hand at a Chopin Nocturne. The mood is tender with a touch of melancholy. Strings start gently in C minor, with a short introduction before the piano comes in with a beautiful, ecstatic triplet theme in C major. Although it remains slow throughout, and with a comparatively small range, it is marked by the recurrence of two- or four-on-three rhythms, as well as the remarkable amount of expressiveness available for such a seemingly easy piece.

Allegro

The finale is a lively dance in duple time, making much use of pentatonic scales and modes. Soon, the second theme is introduced, in 7/8 time, with the piano accompanied by balalaika-like pizzicato strings. This carries on for a short time before a new motif arrives in “Hanon” exercise mode, with scales in sixths and semiquaver runs, this being the joke for Maxim’s graduation. These three themes are then developed and interwoven before a final statement of the 7/8 theme and finally a virtuoso coda in F major.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Shostakovich – Concerto No. 2

Side Two

Ravel – Concerto In G Major