Here’s a rare album where the evocative, retro abstract expressionist cover image matches the music. Pianist Alexander Melnikov has teamed up with violinist Isabelle Faust and trumpeter Jeroen Berwaerts, plus the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Teodor Currentzis for a stunningly intuitive, sonically rich live concert hall-style recording of Shostakovich music just out on Harmonia Mundi. It’s yet another reason why Shostakovich’s catalog is always worth revisiting, for listeners as much as for ensembles.
The lush sonics, in particular, remind how much the shadow of Rachmaninoff looms over much of this. The solo playing, particularly Melnikov’s careful, precise, minutely jeweled dynamics and Faust’s equally considered, judicious atmospherics and pizzicato make a perfect match for Shostakovich the Late Romantic.
Which makes this album all the more fascinating: for anyone who’s immersed themselves in the composer’s string quartets or the symphonies from No. 4 onwards, it’s a real eye-opener. It gets off to a false start with the Piano Sonata, Op. 102, No. 2, a piece from the late fifties with a rather coldly celebratory first movement. But given more substantial material, the performers go warily but passionately into the ominous foreshadowing of the second movement and the brightly scampering music-box variations in the third. If the second is a requiem for friends murdered by the KGB, the third could be a thinly veiled depiction of the gestapo itself.
In a just world, this particular version of the 1968 Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134, No. 1 would popularize the piece beyond its status as noir cult classic: its distantly menacing, steadily crescendoing intensity, suspenseful orchestral accents behind Melnikov’s furtive piano and then its exhausted but dramatically cinematic, largo dirge linger long after it’s over. Composers these days are still trying to catch up with how this one balances atonalism and crushingly catchy melodic hooks. The backstory is that it was written for the composer’s pal, celebrated violinist David Oistrakh,who debuted it with Sviatslav Richter on piano. In fact, modern listeners may prefer this version over the original’s Richter detachment, with Oistrakh sounding a little overwrought.
The Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, from 1933, plays up tension between a wholly Romantic theme and chilling countervoices, Berwaerts offering absolutely no hint that he’ll suddenly be cast in the role of bearer of bad news. Through its windswept, eerie second movement, suspensefully Rachmaninovian moderato third movement and the cruelly faux-operatic, unconvincingly triumphant final overture, it’s a harbinger of dread, in both a historical and musical sense – and one of the most casually stunning classical recordings of recent months.