Friday, 24 February 2012

Shostakovich - Piano Concerto No.2

Dmitri Shostakovich
1906 - 1975
Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. He was heavily influenced by Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and developed a style of music that to me, is some of the most touching and colourful music in my classical music collection. Perhaps best-known for his orchestral music, (including fifteen symphonies and six concerti) he was also a great writer for the piano (being a great pianist himself) and also composed a substantial amount of music for film (this is evident particularly in this movement, as it's easy for one to imagine it accompanying a romantic classic).

Shostakovich's music is particularly interesting because it includes elements from all sorts of genres of Classical music from the 20th century. Mostly, his music is broadly tonal and romantic, however, it is his use of atonality and chromaticism that makes it clear that he was influenced by some of the more experimental composers of his time. (In some of his later works, he even made use of tone rows). However, it was not just the composers of his time that influenced him, he said that one of his main influences was Bach, and we can hear this in his fugues. Other influences include Beethoven, Mahler and even Berg. Out of all of his idols, Stravinsky was the composer that he admired the most, describing him as 'the composer I worship'.

The master himself at the piano...
This piece is a particular favourite of mine because it was the first piece of Shostakovich that I learnt on the piano. The work is scored for solo piano, wind, horns, percussion and strings. Despite the jolly tone of the first movement (allegro) started by the bassoon, the second movement is much more romantic - almost similar to that of a Chopin Nocturne. The mood is created by the different colours that Shostakovich uses throughout, not only in orchestration, but in tonality and key. The andante starts with strings in C minor, and when the piano enters at 1.10, the key modulates beautifully to C major. Like most of the writing in this movement, the piano entry in which we hear a simple triplet theme is so elegant that it seems to float so effortlessly above the rest of the orchestra.

Unfortunately when I performed the piece, I didn't have the luxury of a professional orchestra at my disposal, however I did instead have a very willing music teacher to accompany me by playing the orchestral part on a second piano. Although this did still sound beautiful, what I really love about this piece is the contrast between the colours and sounds of the low tessituras of strings and wind with the delicate melodies of the piano. As well as this, the most incredible thing about this piece is the expressive tone that Shostakovich achieves, even with a relatively easy piano part consisting only of three or four quite simple themes. The phrase, 'less is more' definitely comes to mind.

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