For me, the two piano concertos are not the most important music by Shostakovich. Those would probably be some of the quartets and Symphony No 14 – and even they are less important than the Second Violin Concerto and the Second Cello Concerto. On the surface, the First Piano Concerto (1933) has more stylistic variety, with its direct quotations from Bach, Handel and Rachmaninov – so it seems more diversified than the Second; but actually, it is more straightforward. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
The Second Piano Concerto (1957) is interesting because it’s supposed to be a student piece (written for Shostakovich’s son, Maxim), so not too hard, but when I was learning it I found it very difficult technically, especially the last movement – much more difficult than anything in the First Piano Concerto. It’s a very popular piece, but for the wrong reasons. It’s not its fault, though. Around the time I was playing the piece and recording it, I had a CAT scan (I have a back problem) whereby you have to go into this tube that makes a lot of noise, so they give you music to listen to; I had the second movement of this concerto, and I became convinced that it was a very good piece of music.
A change of heart
I was talked into playing this piece by the conductor Teodor Currentzis, and it’s true that, initially, before I took a closer look, I hadn’t thought of it as a very significant piece within the composer’s output. But I changed my mind completely once I started exploring it. For me, it’s more important than the First Concerto. I think Shostakovich’s message to us is, ‘Listen to my music. If you find something there I’m not going to object to it.’ The music says it all, and Shostakovich left it up to the listener to be the judge. I absolutely hate it when people feel the need to mention that he was a Communist. There’s so much in his music and I respect the way that he didn’t feel he had to put anything into words – I think it makes for a more enriching experience. He himself was religious about not giving out information regarding his music, but then he became popular – ironically, especially in the West – thanks to Solomon Volkov’s book (Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1979), which is largely a fabrication. That’s exactly what Shostakovich didn’t want.
Appearances can be deceptive
I believe that Shostakovich deliberately wanted nothing to be quite what it seems in this concerto. On the surface it’s just a happy, merry-go-round sort of piece, with a lyrical slow movement and a motoric last movement – but it’s full of very strange occurrences. In the first movement, at the end of the cadenza and into the recapitulation, there’s suddenly this incredible glimpse into very dark territory – into ‘normal’ Shostakovich dark territory, so to speak; and it deals with death. I remember that when I learnt it, it was from this point that I began to unwind the concept of the piece.
Being original for the sake of it is the worst thing in music, but I remember I kept finding those little indications by the composer in the score that say, ‘No, it’s not what you think it is’; and I played it from this point of view. I wasn’t looking for anything, I just studied it and it was there. It was obvious to me. In all three movements there are moments when I think he is sending that same message.
This piece appears to be happy, but there are lots of spots which are less than happy. I talk like this because I think that this aspect largely gets overlooked. For me, the piece is extremely masterfully written, and I think that its merits lie within the territory which, for most people, is inaccessible.
Finding the honesty
If you want to give an honest performance of this concerto in a big hall with an orchestra, then good luck. Even legends such as John Ogdon didn’t manage to do that. It’s hard. It should be easy, but there are a couple of things that, while not exactly unplayable in the way that Schumann or Stravinsky can be, are just extremely difficult to play. Some people feel the piece is deliberately reminiscent of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, but I would not speculate – I don’t know. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. Yes, it has the descending scale and pianissimo, but that is a pretty common occurrence in Western classical music.
When performing Shostakovich, once you’ve decided the general aesthetic direction you are taking, the corridor he gives you for interpretative freedoms is narrow. When I recorded the concerto with Currentzis we worked so hard on single notes and decisions. I’m indebted to this conductor – he opened my eyes to the piece and I owe it all to him. I’d call him a genius.
Explore more great piano concertos
Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis
Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich
Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes
Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough
Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin