Thursday, February 16, 2012

In review--Did someone say Shostakovich?

Shostakovich
Piano Concertos
Alexander Melnikov
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Harmonia Mundi

Russian composers came to my attention during the past decade, with the wild piano concertos of Rachmaninoff to the playful and provocative works by Prokofiev.  Now I am listening to early piano concertos by Dmitry Shostakovich as they appear on Shostakovich Piano Concertos and Sonata for Violin and Piano op. 134 as performed by Alexander Melnikov (piano), Isabelle Faust (violin), Jeroen Berwaerts (trumpet), and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra directed by Teodor Currentzis.  The music here runs the gamut from playful and spirited, to solemn to disturbing (Sonata for Violin and Piano).

The program on the recording contrasts the kinetic energy of a young Russian composer, Piano Concertos 1 & 2 with the dark and dissonant Sonata for Violin and Piano, op.134, which I just could not sit and listen to without feeling extremely tense. While I understand intellectually that the composer reacted to the sociopolitical conditions surrounding him at the time of Stalin’s iron fist, I listen to music to relax and enjoy myself. When referring to the sonata, even the liner notes cite, “This music is far from ‘easy listening’ as it gets.  On the other hand, the second movement of the Second Concerto is routinely included in ‘light classics’ compilations, broadcast by radio stations of dubious credibility, and played through headphones to airline passengers or CAT patients ‘to make them feel good’”.

True, the second movement of Piano Concerto, No. 2, possesses relaxing qualities with its slow passages, and slightly melancholic melody, that recalls the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.  However, I much prefer Piano Concerto No. 1, which brings in trumpet as an additional solo instrument.  The first movement sounds familiar to my ears, and mainly because the Canadian folk band The Bills included the intro of the movement on one of their songs from their album All Day Every Day.  Prior to that, I know I heard this music as a soundtrack for cartoons growing up.

Music therapists and sound healers could use the second movement to relax their clients.  The elongated notes, and resonating low strings certainly feel relaxing to me, then halfway through the movement and solemn trumpet comes in with majestic clear tones.  The slow descending notes played on the piano further enhance these relaxing qualities.  Then the performers launch into the final movement in which you had better have a strong heart to keep up.  At least the composer adds a short interlude for a transition, (third movement).

Pianist Alexander Melnikov, Isabelle Faust, Jeroen Berwaerts and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra deliver solid performances that will blow your mind during certain moments and in other moments knock the wind out of you.  With the exception of the second movements from Piano Concertos 1 and 2, I would not recommend this album for listeners with heart problems or brain/nerve disorders. In addition do not play this music for your pets because it is too stimulating.  There is just too much energy here with notes flying at you.  Everyone else is in for an emotional roller coaster ride when listening to the entire recording, but at least ending on a playful note.  I prefer to listen to the piano concertos only.
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