Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, op. 102
solo piano, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, snare drum, violins, violas, cellos, basses
notes by Anthony Suter
First performance: May 10, 1957, Moscow. Maxim Shostakovich, piano. USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nikolai Anosov.
It is especially appropriate that this year’s University of Redlands student soloist, Anthony Ribaya, will be performing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2. This work was written in 1957 as a gift for the composer’s then-nineteen-year-old son Maxim (making it one of the more epic birthday gifts in recorded history). Maxim premiered the work at his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory.
The work is cast in a typical three-movement concerto form and orchestrated for a relatively small orchestra. The orchestra’s composition lends clarity and lightness of touch to the work, which is by turns playful, light-hearted, graceful, and undeniably charming. It is a stark contrast to many of Shostakovich’s more serious, angst-ridden works, and over the years has been the subject of much derision at the hands of critics. Happily, critics do not program concerts. Its appeal to audiences and pianists alike has endured, and it remains one of Shostakovich’s more popular works.
The elegant, almost puckish first movement begins with just the winds. The piano enters lightly and unassumingly, giving the beginning of the concerto an air of chamber music. The scoring is lean and rather athletic, allowing the melodic lines (often containing very surprising twists, reminiscent of Prokofiev) to take precedence. The piano part contains much of the melodic material, often doubled at the octave in both hands. This is certainly not a heavy-handed, thickly Romantic texture.
The central movement is a lyrical slow movement that relies heavily on the string section. Beginning with a gorgeous string chorale that lasts nearly a quarter of the movement, the piano’s entrance is a moment of startling beauty. The piano is given center stage, often unaccompanied or aided with only a pedal note. This bittersweet music, which moves from minor to major and back again, is a perfect contrast to the happily churning outer movements, and it gives the work a beautiful dramatic center.
There is no pause between the second and third movements; the piano ushers the piece into the dance-like finale abruptly and surprisingly. Shostakovich makes heavy use of the asymmetrical meter 7/8 (listen for the rhythms that feel like 1 - 2, 1 - 2, 1 - 2 - 3 and try tapping your foot!), which propels the piece forward in a delightfully off-kilter manner. This music is reminiscent of the frenetic, richly-wrought dance music in many of Shostakovich’s other pieces. There is also an inside joke encoded in this last movement that only pianists will appreciate. Some of the scalar material is very similar to the feared (and often loathed) Hanon piano exercises with which pianists are very familiar. This was, after all, a piece that was premiered by, and at the graduation of, Shostakovich’s son Maxim. This material is folded into the totality of the piece so artfully that it is rather easy to miss (unless you are one of those pianists who has logged countless hours practicing these exercises!), and certainly, the work as a whole gives us a brief glimpse into the composer’s sense of family and sense of humor.