The new series of Russian Piano Music from Divine Art begins auspiciously with a volume devoted to Shostakovich and Comrades , a single disc, which includes some exceptional examples of twentieth-century works for piano. At the core of this recording are the two piano sonatas of Shostakovich, which receive a fine reading by Murray McLachlan and also benefit from the context created in this CD through related works. The selections fit well together and offer an opportunity to hear some works that are otherwise difficult to find.
Shostakovich’s First Piano Sonata (1926) is often regarded as an angry piece, and the edgy, aggressive qualities of this one-movement essay emerge readily in McLachlan’s interpretation. He captures its spirit in the performance, and never flags in bringing out its intensity. McLachlan nicely evokes the rebellious tone that the young composer expressed in this early work. This performance has a percussive quality, which supports the style of the piece appropriately.
In contrast to the First Piano Sonata, the Second (1942) is more reflective in tone and adopts a conventional approach to form with its three movements. Unlike the shifting tempos of the various sections that comprise the First, Shostakovich opens with an Allegretto , which makes use of sonata form. McLachlan brings out the structure nicely, and he complements this approach with a meditative approach to the Largo that follows. The third movement ( Moderato ) is a set of variations (9), which are subtly artful in the way the ideas are manipulated. McLachlan makes the form emerge with clarity, and his playing is both authoritative and comfortable.
The other works in this recording are by composers whose names are familiar. Kabalevsky may be known better to modern audiences for his orchestral music, but the Third Piano Sonata (1946), the piece with which the CD opens, is a fine example of the composer’s style for this medium. McLachlan offers a facile reading, in which Kabalevsky evinces some affinities with Prokofiev. The motoric rhythm of the first movement emerges nicely in this performance; yet the second movement could benefit from a slightly slower tempo. The Finale itself is effective for the impetuous quality McLachlan brings to the music. At times the speed seems impossible to maintain, and McLachlan succeeds not only in doing so, but also in bringing the piece to a satisfying conclusion.
Nikolai Miaskovsky, a slightly older contemporary of Kabalevsky, is known for his nine sonatas. He is represented in this recording with the two-movement Song and Rhapsody , Op. 58 (1942). The first movement has a nicely angular lyricism, which McLachlan exploits well. Yet in the Rhapsody, Myaskovsky explores textures and sonorities reminiscent of Impressionism. While those sounds initially suggest earlier times, Myaskovsky establishes his own style as the piece develops. In a similar way, the British composer Ronald Stevenson offers a further perspective on the lyrical piano piece in his Recitative and Air (DSCH), a piece which dates from 1974 and pays homage to Shostakovich with the sogetto cavato theme based on the composer’s name (D, S [Es=E-flat]), C, H (German pitch name for B-natural). This set of variations is simultaneously a tribute to Shostakovich and a highly evocative work on its own merits. In a recording focused on Shostakovich and his comrades, Stevenson’s piece is a highly effective addition to the already innovative program.
The recording concludes with a virtuoso piece by the contemporary composer Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932), in Tashastuschki , his 1999 transcription for solo piano of an orchestral work from 1963. The single-movement work is a multi-textured piece which works well for solo piano. While the final section seems to push the limits of solo piano music, it remains effective in conveying the effects that exist in the orchestral score. McLachlan is good to explore the various colors of the piano in this virtuosic piece. It rounds out the recording with the appropriate tone.
Through the selections he chose for this recording McLachlan contributes some fine perspectives on twentieth century piano music from Russia . It is by no means a complete picture, but provides a fine introduction to the repertoire, which bears rehearing, particularly in the hands of such a fine interpreter.
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