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CD Review

Works for Piano

Athene 18

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • 24 Preludes, Op. 34
  • Piano Sonata #1, Op. 12
  • Piano Sonata #2 in B minor, Op. 61
  • Prelude & Fugue in D minor, Op. 87 #24
Raymond Clarke, piano
Recorded Djanogly Recital Hall, Nottingham University, January/July/September 1998
Athene ATHCD18 75:44
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Nimbus 5026
Marta Deyanova, piano
Recorded Wyastone Leys, January 1985
Nimbus NIM5026 55:34
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As I begin this rather extensive review project, there are a couple of housekeeping matters that I need to address:

1. The recordings for review are of the solo piano music and piano concertos of Shostakovich excepting for his Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues. I reviewed the available sets of Op. 87 back in the Summer of 2001, and the multi-part review can be found in the Archives. To recap, the Nikolayeva versions on Melodiya and Hyperion stand tall above all other versions. The sets from Ashkenazy, Scherbakov, and Jarrett do have much to offer, but Nikolayeva's intimate working relationship with Shostakovich and her tremendous artistry easily win the day.

2. For this review project, I had to decide whether to review by disc or by composition. My conclusion was to review by disc, the solo discs first and the concertos second. I am starting out with the these two recordings.

Dmitri Shostakovich is among the most famous of 20th century composers. Primary emphasis tends to be placed on his masterful cycles of symphonies and string quartets, but he also wrote outstanding solo piano music as well. Shostakovich's piano masterpiece is the twenty-four Preludes and Fugues of Opus 87, although even here there are never more than a few sets available at any point in time. His other major piano works consist of two piano sonatas and the twenty-four Preludes of Opus 34. I consider Shostakovich's solo piano compostions greatly under-valued, a state that I can only hope will be rectified in future years.

Raymond Clarke, born in 1963, has concentrated mainly on the piano music of 20th century composers. In addition to Shostakovich, he has recorded the music of Aaron Copland, Ronald Stevenson, William Mathias, John Pickard, Karol Szymanowski, Havergal Brian, and Robert Simpson. In concert, Clarke has performed all-Shostakovich programs, the Boulez Piano Sonatas, the Tippett Piano Sonatas, and the complete Prokofieff Sonatas. He has received some fine reviews, although the Shostakovich is the first Clarke recording I have heard. It certainly is a well-filled disc, containing the two Shostakovich Piano Sonatas and his set of 24 Preludes Op. 34 as well as the concluding Prelude and Fugue from Op. 87.

Marta Deyanova has been recording many years for Nimbus. From the recordings I have heard, she has a natural flair for the music of her native land but problems with the music of German and Austrian composers (particularly Schubert).

Let's commence with Shostakovich's 24 Preludes. General opinion appears to be that these pieces are 'light' Shostakovich and not very compelling. Although I agree that they do not approach the architectural excellence or profundity of the Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues, they offer much more than is commonly thought. From my perspective, the theme of Op. 34 is the upheaval of stability as musical lines become fractured and change their direction impetuously. Confusion is the order of the day, and Shostakovich captures this state perfectly.

Of course, there are additional significant features of the 24 Preludes. Mystery is one of the common links among the pieces as well as an industrial-strength brutality. Other prevalent features include a brash demeanor, biting sarcasm, mercurial mood swings, and a playful streak; Shostakovich can be quite tender, but that can change in an instant. Another strong trait of the Preludes is their sparkling and fresh nature, a trait not often found in the Op. 87 pieces. As Shostakovich is increasingly seen as a composer who wrote hidden messages into his music, it is no easy task to ascertain just what emotional conditions and social/political statements Shostakovich's music denotes. Is he celebrating the Soviet experience or making a mockery of it? Is he having fun or offering irony? These and other questions can not be well answered, and conclusions reached by listeners are surely influenced by their own thought process and preferences. All of this gives the pianist a wide array of themes from which to choose, resulting in great differences among them in their conception of the music.

There is much to enjoy in Clarke's performances of the Preludes. He certainly has no problem conveying the full measure of the emotional confusion and mystery in the music's fabric, the level of poignancy is highly effective, and his powerful strokes are impressive. However, there are a few features of his playing that leave me a little skeptical. First, he has a heavy way with these pieces, denying them the lift, playfulness, and sparkle they deserve. His approach would appear to be more in line with the Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues. Second, I would prefer sharper contours than Clarke offers; his rounded tendencies result in less impact from the sudden mood swings. Third, there are times such as in the initial theme of Prelude #3 in G Major where his rhythmic patterns are too straight-laced and unvaried. As for the soundstage, it has little bloom to it and doesn't allow for fine detail.

Perhaps I'm being overly negative. There is a place in the catalogs for a strong and determined Op. 34, and Clarke is definitely in this category. However, as we will discover in future Parts, most of the alternative strong-willed versions carry a significant brutality that is minimal in the Clarke version.

The problems I have with Clarke turn into gold in Marta Deyanova's performance. Her contours are sharper, rhythmic patterns are much more interesting and diverse, the youthful element and brash humor is fully on display, and the buoyancy is exponentially greater than Clarke's.

Deyanova's coupling of Alexander Scriabin's Op. 11 Preludes is a fantastic programming decision and seals the fate of this disc as one of the favorite recordings in my music library. Scriabin's soundworld is quite different from Shostakovich's, and Deyanova has no problem making the switch. Scriabin's Preludes are highly erotic, perfumed, and gorgeous; the few not in this category are totally ferocious and depict to this reviewer a demented personality on speed. Deyanova fully conveys these features with sublime sensuality and tension-laden utterances. Another wonderful aspect of Deyanova's recording is the soundstage that is both stark and rich, allowing the total measure of detail and eroticism to shine. Nimbus piano recordings tend to get some bad press, but this time the Nimbus sound is perfect for the occasion.

Getting back to Clarke's disc, I expected that the dark and brooding Prelude and Fugue in D minor from Op. 87 would be a much better fit for him than the Opus 34 Preludes. However, he is even less rewarding in this music. Rhythms are boring, the quick 10 minute reading doesn't allow for a full exploration of emotional content, tempo changes are minimal, and the use of hesitations does not attract Clarke. It all adds up to a lack of passion that makes this performance a non-starter, particularly when heard in conjunction with the outstanding Tatiana Nikolayeva versions on Hyperion and Melodiya.

A side of Shostakovich not well known is his 'dissonant' period in the mid-1920's after finishing his stint as an academic student. The Sonata #1 finds Shostakovich at his most modernist, and it is a very harsh, percussive, and hard-driving one movement work with the only relief being provided by a Lento section that still conveys a sense of restlessness. Clarke is again very heavy, and it reminds me of what a fellow reviewer wrote about the Colin Stone version on Olympia – "Stone is hard-hitting, not hard-toned". And hard tones are exactly what Clarke offers as he bangs his way into your brain. Perhaps this approach of minimal subtlety and maximum weight best represents the essence of the work, but I much prefer the more varied and interesting interpretation from Stone. Further, the unflattering piano tone only exacerbates the heavy feel to the music and conveys little detail. Stone's soundstage is crisp and revealing of voice interaction.

The Sonata #2 is a three-movement work of modernist leanings and serious intent, although it certainly is not as harsh as the Sonata #1. Matters improve considerably for Clarke when he meets up with the militaristic march music of the 1st Movement Allegretto that has riveting Alberti-bass arpeggios. Actually, Clarke and the military way of life seem to make a perfect and exciting pair. The rhythms now have some lift so that listening becomes compelling instead of dutiful. Clarke's take on the Allegretto is more wild than most other versions and is a distinctive and rewarding alternative to the somewhat academic playing in the other works on his program.

An academic and constricted approach rears its head again in the 2nd Movement Largo. Although a wealth of opportunity for expressiveness resides in the score, Clarke instead avoids tempo modifications and meaningful inflections. Switch to the Nikolayeva version on Hyperion, and the variety and poignancy of the music speaks clearly and effectively.

The 3rd Movement of Sonata #2 is a Passacaglia with 10 variations based on a thirty-bar theme initially offered by the right hand only. Clarke amazes me with the drama, menace, and brutality he injects into the music. Most important, I know of no other version of this movement that conveys such a natural progression as each variation seems the natural answer to the previous one. It is a riveting account throughout its 14 minute length, and Clarke even sparkles deliciously when needed.

Don's Conclusions: Now and then a recording appears to be a 'dead duck' only to be resurrected by a fantastic conclusion. This is the region occupied by the Clarke disc, because his performance of the final movement of Sonata #2 is essential listening. Unfortunately, the rest of the disc is toward the low end of the competition. Do we buy a recording with unflattering sound for only one transcendent movement? That's for you to decide, but my personal response is a resounding YES.

There are no questions to be raised concerning the Deyanova disc. It is one of the jewels in my music library with a Shostakovich at his most brash and impetuous, a Scriabin who intoxicates his victims, and an outstanding soundstage of definition and richness. This is a must-have release that remains in print and readily available on the well known sales websites. Get it before it vanishes.

I've also reviewed with recordings from Artur Pizarro (Collins 14962) and Colin Stone (Olympia OCD574). Pizarro's program is the same as Deyanova's, and the Stone is almost identical to Clarke's. Other future reviews will include performances by Ashkenazy, Nikolayeva, and Hamelin.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz

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