Sunday, July 05, 2020, various locations

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

An ambitious project livestreamed as part of this year’s Internationale Schostakowitsch Tage Gohrisch. In partnership with MDR, ARTE and Deutsche Grammophon, the evening brought together three Russian pianists needing no introduction. Yulianna Avdeeva, Daniil Trifonov and Dmitry Masleev. Three settings, three instruments: Gohrisch, the Hotel Albrechtshof, where Shostakovich composed his Eighth String Quartet (Avdeeva, Steinway); Greenwich, Connecticut (Trifonov, Fazioli); Moscow, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall (Masleev, Steinway). The programme, at just under an hour, focused on music written in Shostakovich’s childhood but with a few pieces of later provenance.

Rapier-sharp, muscled rage, an uncaged beast. Approaching the First Sonata (1926) without form or tonal polarisation, as an improvisation, Avdeeva punched it home mightily, working the notes hard, the venom and vulcanism of her rampage without end. The hammer-blows and infinite pause before the undead pianissimo cosmos of the Lento painted a dramatically managed scene, tensions high. All senses affronted, a silent-film nightmare. Somewhat dull in the bass and not of the best-voiced treble, the piano weathered the storm, Avdeeva returning at the end of the programme for a Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor* – the Prelude (possibly intended, she said, for the 1950-51 Opus 87 cycle [?]), completed from sketches by Krzysztof Meyer, a former student of Penderecki and Lutosławski, the Fugue composed by him. A respectful homage, matriarchal in performance and responsibility.

Trifonov, masked and playing from the score, contributed Three Fugues (1934)*, dispatched with clinical linearity. The first, lyrically sombre. The second (precursing the A-minor from Opus 87), light-fingered and skittish. The third, folkloristic in nuance, coming to rest in a halo of G-major. Bigger-boned stuff came with Shostakovich’s 1921 transcription* of his orchestral Scherzo in F-sharp minor, Opus 1 (the so-called ‘Officer’s Scherzo’), composed two years earlier. A finger-breaker (Russian cavalry ghosted by Liapunov) which in 1923 he ran past the conductor Nikolai Malko – who, however, thought it no more than “the scholastic work of a talented pupil”.

Masleev, benefitting from a large space, resonant acoustic and fine instrument, impressed with the quality of his tone, deftness of pianism, and musicality. True, his Opus 1a Scherzo, though characterful, didn’t quite possess Trifonov’s moderated edge or control (speed exacting a price in places – 4:08 against 4:54). But for the rest consummate finish and poetic regard was in abundant supply. Six Pieces (1917-20). Shostakovich growing out of a melodically bloomed past, neither later Scriabin nor Prokofiev within earshot. His pianism and values (good enough for the first Chopin Competition in 1927) in accord with the wise and great Leonid Nikolayev – whose other Petrograd Conservatoire students at the time, classmates of DS, included Sofronitzky and Yudina. (i) Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution (1917)* – a boy not yet into his teens reacting to his times, traditional ‘funeral’ rhythms seeded less by Chopin than Beethoven’s ‘Marcia funèbre sulla morte d’un eroe’ (Opus 26), granite pillars. Shorn of development and ‘trio’ but impressively gestured and powerfully sonorous. Music from the heart. (ii) Nostalgia* – processional, Bellini ripples, lingering F-major cadence. (iii) Piece in C-major* – white melody, fioriture, not so much a nocturne as glances in a dream vanishing in curls of smoke. (iv) Prelude-March* – slow, grandly imposing ceremonial, with Italianate contrasts, vaguely operatic. (v) In the Forest (1919) – Sinding rustles transitioning into Russian music-box. (vi) Bagatelle* – high velocity concert study.  Three Pieces (1919-20)*. Minuet; Prelude (slow); Intermezzo (marked Allegretto but turned by Masleev into a fast dance-etude, Tchaikovsky style). Aphoristic pastiche, simply structured. (Published in 1983, they’ve been recorded by Postnikova, Scherbakov and Petrushanksy. Martin Jones’s version (AVM) follows Robert Matthew-Walker’s 1989 completion of the Intermezzo’s unfinished autograph.)

Workshop chippings. Student exercises. A tantalising platter. You wonder how many such fragments, others of their kind, were the bread-and-butter of young Shostakovich’s ‘picture palace’ nights as a busking pianist, repetitively hacking mood music/’human-passion’ improvisations for not very much money. Scarcely a glimmer of the quirky Fantastic Dances to come (Scherzo aside), nothing at all of the First Sonata.

Production-wise, Moscow provided the best sound. Camera direction at the German and American end featured overhead keyboard shots, an increasingly popular trend these days (a recently filmed one-take ‘Moonlight’ Sonata from Gala Chistiakova is nothing but – ).

* Premiere