Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, op. 102

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            Delving into a major artist’s mind, seeking to relate the art that we see and hear with the contradictions and complexities inherent in us all is clearly problematic.  And Shostakovich is a particularly knotty case in point. He left a maddeningly ambiguous record of his inner thoughts.  On the one hand, he was capable of writing the most satirical compositions that scathingly excoriated the excesses and flaws of Western democracies. But, of course, he is equally admired for profound music of dark and passion that laments the fundamental tragedies of universal human experience.

            His musical education was broad and firm, and in the early years of Communism he was free to pursue his artistic interests.  But, he was generally supportive of the Communist regime, and saw no reason to think otherwise.   But, as the world knows, during the late twenties and early thirties, life in the Soviet Union evolved into something much more sinister and challenging.  As Stalin gradually clamped down on every aspect of everyday life, the arts became progressively a tool for social and political indoctrination.   Art was impressed into the service of the state as propaganda, taking in this case the form of what is known as “Socialist Realism.”   Simply put, artists were to glorify the reality of the revolution and its benefit to Soviet citizens.   Shostakovich left us many works that seem to indicate that he toed the line set by the Communist Party’s expectations for artists to celebrate the repression—but most of his oeuvre is clearly not subservient to these twisted ideals.  It is one of the composer’s personal triumphs that he was so slyly able to craft compositions that were authentic, but not so subversive as to engender his life.  He survived Stalin, ultimately, and enjoyed his final victory before his death.  So, today we are left with an artistic legacy of remarkable—and occasionally enigmatic--variety.

            The second piano concerto is devoid of most of the dark side of the composer, as well as his famous sarcastic moments.  Rather, it is generally a light, cheerful work, composed in 1957 in the somewhat happier times after Stalin’s death.  Written for his son, Maxim, upon the occasion of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory, it has long been an audience favorite, although the composer tried to modestly—and probably with tongue in cheek—slightly deprecate its putative lack of seriousness.

            In the first movement, after a few bars in the solo woodwinds, the piano comes right in with one of the main themes of the work—you’ll hear it frequently in many guises.  It’s a simple little tune that implies the mixolydian mode--sounds like a normal major scale, but with a “blue” note near the top.  (This, along with the 7/8 time signature in the last movement implies to me that the composer was perhaps thinking a bit of Bulgarian folk elements.)  Shortly, there is a segue into one of Shostakovich’s famous marches, followed by a more subdued closing theme in the minor mode.  The first section gradually gently ends, but a lound, abrupt interruption by the orchestra takes us to a busy, bustling examination by both the soloist and the orchestra of the various themes-juxtaposed in creative ways.  A smashing, virtuoso climax with the orchestra singing out the main theme over scrambling piano figurations ends suddenly.  The soloist continues alone frenetically in a solo passage that functions as a kind of cadenza that leads into a pseudo-fugue (Shostakovich was a master of these).  But, it soon ends, as the orchestra re-enters and sings out the prominent themes as they are woven together. Meanwhile the pianist is furiously beavering away with highly animated figurations, all of which leads to a Shostakovian triumphal ending—exiting, good fun.

            The second movement may come as somewhat of a surprise for many—given that much of the composer’s music pushed deeply into the anguish of twentieth-century musical style—not to speak of Shostakovich’s mastery of sarcasm.  But here, is a deep immersion in a sincere evocation of musical romanticism.  Without a scintilla of self-consciousness, Shostakovich crafts a movement of eloquent beauty whose origins lie in the slow movements of concertos by Mozart and Beethoven.  If contrasts to the bustle of bookend movements are expected in slow movements of concertos, then here they are consummate.  The waning moments lead without pause into the wakeup of the energetic last movement.  The piano plunges right in, with a bright, chirping tune that swiftly turns into one of the composer’s famous galops, careening precipitously along at breakneck speed.  Idea after idea parades before us, as Shostakovich—typically—seems never to run out of textures, rhythms, and motifs.  The “Bulgarian” 7/8 time signature seems to fit right in easily, and lends a kind of thumping syncopation.  It doesn’t take long, and couldn’t, before this scintillating horserace drives to a brilliant conclusion.  It’s easy to understand why this concerto never fails to please—testimony to the composer’s innate talent for variety and surprise, all in “light” piece, oh so craftily conceived.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan