Though perhaps not the best-known of his piano works, Shostakovich’s solo music for the instrument surely ranks among the best of the twentieth century.
Now, in his newly released Hyperion debut, Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin presents an all-Shostakovich programme which showcases both the quality and variety of this repertoire…
Make no mistake: this is a stunning album, and even in a month crowded with new releases from major artists, I found it an easy choice for inclusion in the Recording of the Month series…
That Shostakovich composed two solo Piano Sonatas may even come as a surprise to some, as these works aren’t performed with nearly the frequency that they deserve.
Shostakovich aficionados and scholars will, however, be aware that the composer’s mother was a piano teacher, and his first musical instructor (he began serious lessons at the sensible age of 9, having already enjoyed a childhood with music around him).
As a teenager, and following the Russian revolution of 1917, the young Shostakovich pursued his love of music, fascinated by new developments in composition as much as in the development of his own pianism.
By now he was studying music full time, and in his later teens gave acclaimed performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and took part in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Soon afterwards he was the soloist in senior contemporary Prokofiev’s First Concerto in Leningrad. But ultimately the pull of composition proved greater than the lure of the concert hall.
Shostakovich’s First Sonata for piano is one of his earlier works, his Op.12 dating from around 1925 when the composer was just 19.
In common with the Second Symphony, composed within the same year, the piece explores the tension between an ever-powerful pull towards tonality and passages which are at times unapologetically, brutally atonal.
The First Sonata is a fiery work, tempestuous in its untempered outbursts, and held together by an uncertain narrative. It is as ‘difficult’ a piece in the virtuosic stamina it requires of the performer as it is in the uncompromising demands it makes of an audience.
The Second Sonata is a much later work, composed in 1943, by which point Shostakovich had composed seven of his Symphonies and become an established hero of the Russian musical scene.
With it’s anchor firmly in tonality (the key is B minor), and with three well-balanced movements in a fairly conventional classical form, this Sonata certainly proved more accessible to this listener, and has much in common with Prokofiev’s “War Sonatas” from the same period.
The opening movement, though marked Allegretto, has a restlessness that is at times unsettling but elsewhere exhilarating, all the while making huge technical and musical demands on the performer. The central Largo meanwhile exposes the wounded heart of the work, at times desolate, perhaps scarred by the turmoils of its time?
Finally, the epic Moderato con moto open with a quirky theme which soon proves to be the fertile basis of the playful and masterfully crafted set of variations which make up this gigantic and affirming finale.
The Sonata in total lasts just under half an hour, and is a stupendous work that lovers of 20th century piano music really mustn’t miss. I have to add that I have completely and utterly fallen under its spell.
Sandwiched between these two works in Gugnin’s programme, the more whimsical 24 Preludes Op.34 offer and extraordinarily colourful smorgasbord of mood and intent.
These Preludes are not to be confused with the epic set of 24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87, which provide the better-known pinnacle of Shostakovich’s solo piano output (which have been brilliantly recorded by Tatiana Nikolayeva (for Hyperion, available here) and more recently Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi, available here, by a whisker my preferred choice).
Few of the Op.34 Preludes outlast two minutes, the whole set clocking in at just 35’54”, making up a sparkling mosaic of wonderful music in miniature.
Suitable for advanced players working on the higher grades up to first diploma level, these are actually pieces which deserve to be much more frequently played by amateur pianists.
Hearing them performed as a set here, bookended by the monumental Sonatas, provides a timely reminder of their creative spark, originality and complexity of thought and expression. An inspired piece of programming!
I must quickly also mention that the CD finishes with a short encore, another delightful miniature, the Nocturne from The Limpid Stream, a deliciously melodic piece which provides a fitting counterbalance after the intensity of the Second Sonata.
Performance and Recording
Prior to this recording I had not encountered Andrey Gugnin, but those who follow the competition circuit may recognise him as the winner of the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition, which sponsored this present Hyperion recording.
Previously he was also a Gold Medalist at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition in 2014, and took second prize at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in 2013.
A graduate of the Moscow State Tchaikovksy Conservatory, Gugnin has already performed widely around the world, and is no stranger to the recording studio. His recording of the Shostakovich Piano Concertos was selected for use in Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Bridge of Spies, while his recording of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante was an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine last year.
With this Shostakovich release for Hyperion it seems likely that Gugnin will fully hit the “big time” and impress critics and audiences alike. In short, his playing here is marvellous!
Gugnin has a phenomenal technique at his disposal, never disappointing throughout this release. His lyricism in the valedictory Nocturne from The Limpid Stream makes for a satisfying foil to his stamina and ferocious power in the First Sonata. His deftness in the faster Preludes is as jaw-droppingly miraculous as is his effortlessly exemplary voicing in the more contrapuntal moments.
Above all, it is the clarity of texture, melodic line, shaping, and variety of touch that makes the biggest impression here, adding so much to our appreciation of these varied works. Gugnin is certainly helped here by Hyperion’s brilliant sound recording. Produced by Rachel Smith with engineer Ben Connellan, the sessions took place in St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London.
Gugnin performs on a Steinway piano, and credit is undoubtedly also due to technician John Elliott.
It is something of a shock that these works are not more widely performed and better known.
While the First Sonata is undeniably a thorny piece (it took me several listens to fathom), the Second is surely the mature work of a towering genius, equal to the now-ubiquitous Prokofiev Sonatas of the same period. The Preludes Op.34 meanwhile are in my view among the 20th century’s most adorable and accessible solo piano compendiums; it’s extraordinary that they are so little-played.
If Andrey Gugnin’s new recording goes some way to bringing these pieces the attention they richly deserved, that will be as welcome as it is overdue. At the same time, here’s a recording which confirms Gugnin as one of the major talents of our time. His playing throughout is simply astonishing.
Kudos, finally, to Hyperion for investing in this project, and for producing such a first-class benchmark release.
2019 has been a fine year for piano recordings, but this one I think towers above them all, and is an absolutely essential purchase for all lovers of great piano music and playing.
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