Thursday, 1 February 2018

I knew our music would allure him…

Sometime during last weekend, I came downstairs to find The Good Lady Bard transfixed by a recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on Classic FM – a piece much discussed (and played) in this household (as on this blog): especially the difference (on the soloist’s part, at least) between good and bad performances.

This was neither. In a nutshell, it was astonishing – the composure and control of the pianist far excelling any previous experience of this work (and with orchestral accompanists of the same impressive calibre). As TGLB said: even amongst all the virtuoso passages, and the swagger, the performer “sounds like they have all the time in the world”; adding that “they seem so relaxed: as if this is well within their capabilities; that they’re not being stretched, at all…” – and I had to agree. All those dense notes; and what could have been a struggle (or a muddle) rendered crisp, and yet remarkably heartfelt. Whoever was playing was at the top of their superlative game… – but this was not a version either of us had encountered before. I laughingly remarked that, in the more lyrical sections, it reminded me of either Martin Roscoe or Peter Donohoe playing Mozart; however, I was not aware – having listened to many (extremely different) recordings, whilst carrying out research (for the two concerts linked to, above) – of either of them having recorded this.

And so I was both right and wrong. It seems I had a blind spot (or a failure of memory): and that Peter had recorded the original “jazz band” arrangement: with Simon Rattle and the CBSO. So I downloaded it from Apple Music, and we listened to it again. Yup: it really was that good: utterly vivacious, and completely commanding, with every note as clear (and cogent) as crystal; and therefore yet more proof that Peter – like Zaphod Beeblebrox – has three arms; and/or is just one of the very greatest pianists that has ever lived.

It was the delicacy, I think, that was the giveaway – as well as, perhaps, the simultaneous ability to simply get on with the job whilst investing it with years of experience, a whole bucket-load of perfectly-ciphered emotion, and a combination of rare humanity and rarer talent. And it doesn’t matter what score the man is playing: as this review of him working his very own brand of magic with both Mozart and Shostakovich (as well as the similarly-minded Orchestra of the Swan) demonstrates (I hope). Here’s a small taste:

The first movement, Allegro moderato, immediately wakes you from your Mozartian reveries: pulling you away swiftly and cruelly from those sunlit uplands; with Donohoe issuing a startling challenge of runs and a creepy, creeping, resonant bass motif…. This develops into what I can only describe as ‘typical Shostakovich’ – a pointed Allegro vivace, with infrequent trumpet commentary. Although the strings, with Curtis’ precision guidance, try their hardest to calm things down, as the pace slows (marginally) to Allegretto – and just as it looks as if everyone is going to play nicely together, at the transformation to Allegro – Donohoe careers off expertly with yet more of that trademark, jagged sarcasm….

The trumpet’s return is impudence personified. Both soloists want to have the last word. And they do. And we cheer and stamp, and applaud: knowing that intense magic was worked – but not quite knowing how…. Stupendous, on all counts! (And not a surprise – considering the immensely-skilled, interrogative punishment it received – that the piano needed a quick retune, afterwards.)

Fortunately, for those who weren’t there, that performance of Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings was part of an all-day recording and rehearsal session: and the result is now available on CD (or to download); along with the Piano Concerto no.2 and Piano Sonatas no.1 and no.2. It is the perfect companion to Peter’s two insightful discs of the 24 Preludes and Fugues – Kate Molleson, in The Guardian, stating that there is, on this earlier release, “immense dignity and power in Donohoe’s directness” (although I do think she misinterprets the “staunchness” of some of the interpretations…).

Not only that, but – for the sake of completeness, perhaps… – there is an opportunity to experience his rendition of the Second Piano Concerto, live, in a few weeks, at both Stratford ArtsHouse and Birmingham Town Hall. If you can’t wait (or even if you can), I still think you should rush out and buy this new CD (and the previous pair, of course)! And I shall do my best, with what follows, to explain why….

Until hearing the performances on this disc – already highly-acclaimed – I did not think my favourite interpretations of the two concertos – to be found on an old Classics for Pleasure LP, stored safely somewhere in the Bardic loft – could ever be surpassed or replaced. Many have come close (the Previn/Bernstein partnership, particularly; as well as those of Dmitri Shostakovich junior, with dad Maxim at the helm – no.1 and no.2); but I have always returned to the familiarity of Alexeev and Maksymiuk: partly, I suppose, because they were the first recordings I remember owning and listening to; plus they seemed suitably ‘Soviet’ in character.

Part of the reason for this usurpation is that – to transpose conductor David Curtis’ compelling passion – “the music [on the disc] tells a story”: that is, the four works are performed in chronological order, alternating sonata and concerto: adding depth and context to each work, and presenting us with the continual evolution of the composer’s style and self-belief. Thus we range from 1926 – when he was nineteen, and deeply immersed in what would be later classified as his early ‘avant-garde’ period (1919-1936) – through to 1957, the year of the Eleventh Symphony (‘The Year 1905’); that is, during Shostakovich’s productive late period, and his “concentration on intimate chamber works”.

Piano Sonata no.1, op.12 (1926)

The First Piano Sonata was a favourite of Shostakovich as (extremely virtuosic) performer – despite his teacher dubbing it a work “for metronome accompanied by piano”. Nipping at the heels of his triumphant First Symphony, to contemporary audiences it was even more modern, more daring (more akin, actually, to Symphony no.2…); and when, having just completed its composition, he played it through at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he was studying, it is reputed to have caused his fingers to bleed. Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me. (Whether or not it had the same effect on Peter is not detailed.)

On first hearing – although written in one continuous movement – it seems to be simply(!) a matter of fast, slow, then fast again – despite a plethora of marked tempo changes. It is also “highly dissonant, with fast double notes, glissandos, and blocks of chords that require three staves on the printed score”. But, listen more carefully, and, in Peter’s masterly hands, what seems initially complex soon emerges as intelligible: with detail and form both transpiring readily.

The opening brings – as an extended fugal subject with but one voice… an angry insect or bird… – torrents of tumbling notes: at times colliding sharply as protons, impacting with almighty shattering interjections of electrical energy; sometimes seemingly overflowing with repressed passion (but uninhibited volume). This is a moto perpetuo that pulls you in greedily. Especially when played like this.

Recorded (as was the Second Piano Sonata) in the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, the acoustic is also summarily involving: Shostakovich’s rushing rivers snaking and surging around you; the tumultuous, lacerating particulate collisions (unsteadying earthquakes from the sub-woofer; or impolite punches to the eardrums) – allying with the resultant, immaculate silences – both ends of the keyboard keen, incisive, in their distinct voices: each note – no matter its size, length, or significance – perfectly enunciated, sans distortion; but not sans emotion. The stereo separation is stable and superlative: you imagine that not only does this recording capture what Peter played, but also what he heard (and felt). You could even be turning (quiet and efficient) pages for him….

As soon as you detect a burgeoning melody or rhythmic theme – Peter’s subtle emphases leading the way – the music dissolves; regroups; turns awkward, rapid corners (with the grace of the most mellifluous skater), and carries you along. You are driven to interrogate where it will take you, what it may mean. It may be – it is – utterly “virtuosic”: written for Shostakovich to show off his compositional and functional, performative, skills (as Peter so thoroughly demonstrates); but it is nevertheless enthralling emotionally, burrowing into both your body and brain.

There are inklings of what Shostakovich would become renowned for, as well as of later musical and political battles: the older composer’s mock triumphalism knocking at Stalin’s thick skull; Peter sharply rendering the sarcasm, the ironic, to the pinnacle of perfection. There are intimations, too, of the late Scriabin’s scintillating scalpel (sharp, serrated edges a penetrating speciality); as well as flattery of Mussorgsky and Prokofiev (especially the latter’s Third Piano Sonata). And yet, in these consummate hands, beneath these heedful fingertips, the entirety gels; is utterly cohesive and powerful; is of one formidable voice.

If the anger of the first “fast” section seems to be assuaged in the quieter moments and the slower (not-quite) central segment, Peter ensures that it is never that far away that it cannot be summoned instantly. Extended builds – sometimes seeming to develop into crises, rather than climaxes – are controlled, constrained, flawlessly: the acquired, intimate knowledge of this individual keyboard’s feel; its capabilities; its use as sound, as outcry, as well as pitch, absorbed into Peter’s hands and heart. Use of the sustaining pedal is subtle… – until one of those “collisions” explodes brutally… and is held for longer than you could ever believe possible: nothing surviving but a lone man traversing the macerated, war-torn landscape, weeping, weeping…. (Kudos, as they say, to recording engineer Robin Hawkins, and producer and editor Nick Parker, for encapsulating this with jaw-dropping distinction.)

The last four minutes – as we may feel recovery beckoning – manage to be both genuinely and disingenuously gentle… to begin with; whilst yet more apparent counterpoint emerges, underlined by heavy, intermittent footfalls. “What is a melody? What is its purpose?” demands the composer, congruently with a grilling of rhythm’s own application: the last ninety seconds confounding as nothing before or since; taking away any last iota of breath. Another extended crescendo; the whole piano crying out forcefully (and me sobbing on my handwritten notes); the last ten seconds fibrillating every found molecule of your soul… until we can bear no more. (It is too painful to hear again; so, as I type up these stained, diluted words, I repeat my listening of the work again and again: each iteration bringing greater knowledge, if not yet complete understanding; as well as a deep pain swelling beneath my sternum.)

Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings, op.35 (1933)

I shall let my review of the live performance of the Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings (sometimes – wrongly – called Piano Concerto no.1) stand: as the recording perfectly captures (and conjures – to my mind) the excitement generated by all of the performers, but especially that between Peter, with “that remarkable, ineffable, deftness of touch”, and trumpeter Hugh Davies, “stupendously producing some of the greatest, almost jazz-club-like playing: akin… to the legend that is Miles Davis…”.

All that needs adding is that the Lento surprised even me as to its tear-duct-bothering beauty: Hugh pushing every kind of ravishing, round sound out to mingle with Peter and the orchestra’s confounding, fervent, deeply-felt and -held radiance. Astonishing stuff… – and the soundscape feels just as intimate as that of the sonatas.

Piano Sonata no.2, op.61 (1943)

According to Sophia Gorlin (whose essay on the Second Piano Sonata is well worth reading), Shostakovich’s “middle period” encompasses…

…1936 to 1953 (the year of Soviet dictator Stalin’s death and the creation of [Shostakovich’s] Tenth Symphony) [and] features the composer’s formulation of the major principles of his individual style and the creation of his greatest symphonies (from the Fifth to the Tenth), as well as chamber works. During this period, his musical language was becoming more ‘conservative’, mainly tonal…

…and it is during these years (in 1943: between the Leningrad and Eighth Symphonies) that Piano Sonata no.2 (op.61) was produced – his first major work for piano since the 1933 Preludes (op.34). (To continue the “story”: the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87, were composed a few years later, in 1950 and 1951).

For all its alleged dissimilarity with the First Piano Sonata – and that work’s supposedly manic character (its “brashness and sonic mayhem [conjuring] images of the young Shostakovich with a hammer smashing bugs”) – there are concordances to be found in this later work: especially in the spate of contrapuntalism that begins it: against which Peter balances what sounds like a very Shostokovichian theme in the left hand. When his hands swap roles, it feels as if fireworks have been launched into the cold Russian air (and that you are situated in their very close vicinity).

This is definitely more affable, more accessible, than the First: but that is not to say that there are not complexities for Peter to unravel. There are many; and he does so with his habitual clarity: but without over-egging either their technical or sentimental content. And yet, regarding the latter, the first movement is immediately both spellbinding and thrilling. Whilst marvelling at Peter’s exceptional dexterity, I gasped, several times, as Shostakovich shook my expectations (and emotions) to their core – the frequent apparent simplicity (especially in the middle of the movement) leading – building – to moments of astonishing soul (and finger)-smashing intensity. (And, once more, the sound – with its physical and temperamental reverberations – is perfectly reproduced.) Any moments of rubato are controlled fittingly, yet without Peter’s playing ever approaching the mechanistic (an easy trap, one suspects; but invisible, here). And one can almost sense the smile materializing on his face as he closes this engaging Allegretto with a rare moment of dramatic, unexpected, satisfaction.

The central Largo, therefore, comes as even more of a shock. Yet it is as unhesitatingly beguiling as that which precedes it; whilst wearing its heart openly. Again, though, Peter somehow implies this, rather than overemphasizing it. This is a movement of transcendent, crystalline beauty: which, despite what seem hiatuses in the music, never loses its impetus. The left hand’s threatening dark knocks at Shostakovich’s door – or are they heartbeats? – are, though, quite startling, the first time you hear them; and yet they transform into something as ravishing as it is bewildering. I wished, though, that this disturbing, heartrending, music would continue for longer than its seven minutes or so; but the composer had obviously stated all that he needed to – tinged as it is, so memorably, with the death of his piano teacher, Leonid Nikolayev; and all that this meant to him.

Shostakovich studied under Professor Nikolayev from 1920 until his graduation from the conservatory in 1923. Their friendship and collaboration continued for many years beyond graduation. Nikolayev played a great role in Shostakovich’s education as a composer, although officially his composition teacher was Maximilian Steinberg, with whom he had a much more superficial contact.

The homage to Nikolayev is more explicit in the final movement, being a set of variations (a form which the older composer excelled at, and had recommended writing “as a perfect exercise for budding composers to discover their own style”). These are based on an apparently simple tune: which, like the one that propels the First Piano Sonata, seems to contain its own counterpoint. This is so addictive that the entry of an accompaniment feels unexpected, if not downright discourteous. However, it evolves naturally; and we never lose sight (nor sound) of the emphases which so mark the theme’s temperament: always subtle, in Peter’s hands; as are the flights (both high and low; not of fancy, so much, as creativity) which he and Shostakovich take us on.

These flow, amassing momentum, even in the lighter, quieter, variations. There are no hands better to be in the care of… – especially in this finale’s more spiky moments; as well as those heavier ones: sound-wise, and, once more, with feeling (the two sometimes combined, of course). Be warned, though, this is powerful sorcery: this partnership of composer and performer seemingly made in heaven (however hell-like some of the music may sometimes seem) – if not from Peter’s love, knowledge, and experience of things Russian.

A sudden change of mood closes the sonata: ninety seconds of Romanticism (played with just as much verve): with enough hints of menace to leave you uncertain of your bearings for days afterwards. It takes a long time for the resultant goosebumps to melt, to fade, once you have peered into the infinities of what may well be Shostakovich’s exposed soul. (It is easy to say that musicians must be objective when creating such stuff as dreams – and ’mares – are made on; but I refuse to believe that Peter left the recording studio unscathed: it feels as if there was a Faustian price to be paid just for listening….) Phew.

Piano Concerto no.2, op.102 (1957)

Like Beethoven, Shostakovich had the unworldly ability to produce music which shook off the slings and arrows of any current personal adversity – the Second Piano Concerto being a fascinating exemplar. The composer’s wife and mother had both recently died; and a hasty remarriage brought him a new partner with no knowledge of, nor love for, music; nor – as Daniel Jaffé’s wonderful notes for the CD recount – any understanding of his “far from biddable offspring”!

One of those “offspring” was a talented pianist, like his father; and eventually became conductor of the two concerto recordings mentioned above (made with his own “talented pianist” son, Dmitri). Thus Maxim Shostakovich gave the first performance, as dedicatee, on his nineteenth birthday (10 May 1957).

The concerto begins much more jovially than any of the preceding works. And, as much as the opening Allegro grows introspective with the introduction of the second theme, it never quite reaches their emotional depths. What it does is feature some astonishing, instant switches of mood, dynamic, and volume: and it is to David’s credit, as conductor, that none of this appears to trouble the Orchestra of the Swan – on truly cracking form – at all! The piano is perhaps a little less weighty, though – maybe even ‘withdrawn’ a little – in this recording: made in the capacious Cheltenham Town Hall; although Peter’s crisply glistening top notes shine through spectacularly.

The highlight, for me, is the central Andante: OOTS’ strings on particularly ravishing form. And, although perhaps a tad slower than we might expect it, David gives the music room to breathe: so that when the piano’s Rachmaninoff-style cantilena begins, Peter is not rushed – a situation he takes full advantage of. It is easy to see why this movement has become so popular; and, thus, all one should do is bathe in the warm, misty sunlight it presents, without paying too much attention to its whys and wherefores. That is, until the closing bars: when a dark cloud passes over us…

…before the madcap finale gets underway, attacca…! The interaction, and balance, of piano and orchestra – every single performer at their very best; and giving their accomplished all – is superb; and David controls the “lively 7/8 episodes” with great aplomb (and, no doubt, a great big smile, too…).

This is music for enjoyment, not for thinking! It is therefore a wonderful way to end the CD: the perfect assured celebratory antithesis to the soul-searching which has preceded it. And yet it follows the trajectory set out at the disc’s very beginning: leaving us with a story well-told; one concluded with the most magical pizzazz!

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