Russian Piano Humour and Orchestral Romanticism

  1. Piano Concerto No. 1
  2. Piano Concerto No. 2
  3. Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet
  1. Andris Poga conductor
  2. Boris Giltburg piano
  3. Brynjar Kolbergsrud trumpet

While the classical music tradition may often appear serious, Dmitri Shostakovich’s two piano concertos feel refreshingly humorous.

The soloist allows his fingers to play freely over the piano keys while the orchestra follows every wild, flawless move … Pianist Boris Giltburg performs both piano concertos in Oslo, while Latvian Andris Poga conducts a concert which also includes the very best of Serge Prokofiev’s well-known music to the greatest love story of all time − Romeo and Juliet.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

(From the “balcony scene” in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)

We are on the balcony, and need neither graceful dance nor Shakespeare’s timeless words to sense the excitement and beauty in the young love which plays out below in Serge Prokofiev’s (1891−1953) music to one of literature’s most famous love scenes. The magical scene is instantly set with the sound of flutes, harps and damped strings (but soft), but it is only when the cellos, violas and violins unfold the great love theme (O Romeo, Romeo) that the night air is filled with intense feeling, and the concert hall seems to be set alight with a richness of symphonic sound and colour.

In his unmistakeable style, Prokofiev has spiced up the music with unexpected melodic turns, chords and sound colours. Often, the neo-classical play with convention has a drily humouristic effect. The “Gavotte”, originally from Symphony No. 1, flashes us a wry smile from behind the classical facade. The iconic “Dance of the Knights”, also known as “Montagues and Capulets”, seems violent and hateful, almost diabolical, with its twisted melodies, rhythmical accentuations and tearing harmonies. But let’s get back to the balcony. In the “Balcony Scene” and “Love Dance”, the composer’s unambiguous touch make the music authentic and passionate, but also unsentimental and formidable. The same goes for the tones which accompany the couple to their final rest − “Juliet’s Funeral” and “Juliet’s Death”. The love theme lives on, but in a colour and form which leaves no doubt as to the outcome.

In the 1930s, in the shadow of Tchaikovsky’s glorious ballet tradition and Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant orchestral accomplishments, with furious Stalinists hot on his heels, Prokofiev still succeeded in creating a personal and modern musical expression for this famous love story. The ballet was first performed in 1938, but has been — together with the suites — performed in many different versions as a consequence of a series of controversies surrounding its creation.

Around the same time, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906−1975) composed his first concerto for piano (1933). Already from the very first bar, the composer lets the piano soloist play freely, with the solo trumpet as his trusty accomplice. Orginally, Shostakovich had planned the work as a double concerto for trumpet and piano, and even though it ended up as a piano concerto, the trumpet retains an important role in the orchestra, which is otherwise made up exclusively of strings. Both the first and the last movements contain a string of citations and references to his own work and that of others, including several pieces by Beethoven, and a close listener might experience the concerto as a sort of parody. Before the entertaining and somewhat sarcastic final movement starts, Shostakovich demonstrates that he could also write deeply felt, grippingly melancholic music, as heard in the introverted, passionate Lento movement. Shostakovich’s first piano concerto was performed for the first time in Leningrad in 1933, the composer himself at the keyboard.

In many ways, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1957) continues along the same path as the first. Also this concerto bubbles with youthful energy and playful virtuosity. This time, however, Shostakovich has included a larger wind section, snare drum and timpani, giving the work an orchestral signature typical of the composer. Once again, the middle movement is a melancholic and romantic interlude, before a furious finale gets underway, abruptly breaking out into the unusual tempo 7/8. Shostakovich’s second piano concerto was composed for the composers’s son, Maxim, who gave the first performance of the work as part of his examination concert at the Moscow Conservatory in 1957. Although Shostakovich himself claimed that the concerto did not have any artistic merit, it became immediately popular, and has remained in the core orchestral repertoire for more than 60 years.

When Olav Kielland conducted the first piano concerto in 1939, Dmitri Shostakovich was an unknown composer for Norwegian audiences. His first symphony had been performed a couple of times earlier, in the 1930s, but it was only after the war that Shostakovich’s music gained a foothold in Oslo, when Odd Grüner-Hegge conducted a number of performances of his symphonies. In contrast, Ukrainian-born Shura Cherkassky, who was the soloist at the first performance of the piano concerto in Oslo, was well acquainted with Shostakovich’s music. Cherkassky shared Shostakovich’s fear of the Communist regime, but while the composer chose to remain in Russia and resist Stalin, Cherkassky’s Jewish family moved to the US following the revolution of 1917 in order to escape persecution. When the Soviet Union collapsed around 1990, antisemitism was still rife in Russia, and more than a million Jews escaped to Israel in course of the following decade. Among them we find the family of this evening’s soloist, Boris Giltburg, which moved from Russia to Israel in 1995.

(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; TransIation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Dmitri Shostakovich; Photo: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo)

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