Quite a few pianists have recently recorded the Shostakovich First, including Martha Argerich (DG). I can't quite jettison my recollection of the late Artur Rubinstein's pronouncement on this work, though: put frankly, he thought it was terrible. While I wouldn't completely dismiss the piece, I won't defend it, either. In fact, I wouldn't rate it much above that nadir of Shostakovich's symphonic oeuvre, the bombastic, trite Twelfth Symphony. True, the concerto is relatively subdued, but the dialogue between that quacking trumpet (it is a concerto for "Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra," actually) and the piano (striking high staccato chords) in the finale conspire to test your patience.
Luckily, the other work on this disc is of considerable consequence. But I must confess that before hearing Volkov's illuminating performance of it, I hadn't thought much of the Schnittke concerto, either. The only other recording of the work I know of, the Pontinen/Markiz on BIS, I now realize, failed to fully communicate the expressive depth of this dark, brooding, violently dissonant work. Consider this: Volkov's total timing is 26:03; Pontinen takes a mere 20:30. When such a disparity exists in so short a work, you rightly suspect both readings can hardly share an equally valid point of view. Volkov plumbs the depths of Schnittke's tormented psyche, whereas Pontinen seems at times to sprint over it, though he does manage to impart a febrile intensity throughout most of the score. Volkov's reading is a truly outstanding, revelatory one that just could make this powerful piece better known. You'll hear a bit more of the score in his hands, too: try the passage beginning at 8:32, where the tempo quickens and a feeling of urgent dread seizes the emotional drawstrings. Pontinen here (6:23 in his recording) sounds convincingly manic, all right, but a bit glossy too, where Volkov is intense and grim, and stresses inner lines to good effect. The orchestral playing in the BIS recording by the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra is marginally superior to that of the Moscow Symphony under Vassily Sinaisky. But the difference is not enough to become a decisive factor.
Volkov's rendering of the Shostakovich First is a good one, if you're interested in this piece. The sound provided by Brioso on this disc is excellent, as are the notes. In the end, both these recordings of the Schnittke concerto are of merit, but for greater depth and intensity choose the Volkov. BIS offers two iffy Schnittke chamber works on its disc that are hardly more attractive than the Shostakovich.
Copyright © 1997, Robert Cummings