Shostakovich’s first piano concerto has always been something of a party piece. While it starts in a serious frame of mind, the music goes out of control in the barnstorming finale, containing everything from straight-laced classical to riotous boogie-woogie effects.
The second, on the other hand, was described by its composer in a letter as having ‘no redeeming artistic merits’ – not true of course, and its memorable themes and accessibility to younger players has ensured it a regular place in the repertoire.
I approached this new release with great expectations, as Marc-Andre Hamelin has produced some extraordinary discs of Russian piano music for Hyperion by undervalued composers such as Roslavets and Medtner. Technically his readings of the two concertos are faultless, with plenty of light and shade, most effective in the first movement of the first and showing a real sensitivity in the gorgeous central Andante of the second.
The outer movements of this piece work well too, if sometimes lacking the exuberance this music thrives on. This problem rears its head more acutely in the finale of the earlier work, where trumpet and piano would normally have concert-goers in stitches. Here the music is a bit hammed up, the contrasts in tempo overdone by Hamelin and Litton. For sure it offers a different perspective on the score, but is not always entirely tasteful.
This leaves Shchedrin’s second concerto of 1966, a complete unknown to me and a work that seems keen to explore an atonal style, but not at the expense of the audience. The austere, angular first movement finds Hamelin in total control as the music, with strong echoes of Bartok and Lutoslawski, comes to an uncomfortable climax on a chord of fourths before subsiding to a piano solo.
The real shock is saved for the finale, a jazz band appearing out of nowhere, and as David Fanning’s excellent booklet notes confirm, Shchedrin changes style at the click of a finger, crossing the finishing line with a flourish of block chords.
Some mixed views on this release then, but as always with Hamelin it’s interesting and extremely well recorded.