For Shostakovich, 1953 to about 1960 was a period of relative prosperity and security: with Stalin’s death a great curtain of fear had been lifted. Shostakovich was gradually restored to favour, allowed to earn a living, and even honoured, though there was a price: co-operation (at least ostensibly) with the authorities. The peak of this “thaw”, in 1956 when large numbers of “rehabilitated” intellectuals were released, coincided with the composition of the effervescent Second Piano Concerto.
Shostakovich was hoping that his son, Maxim, would become a pianist (typically, the lad instead became a conductor, though not of buses). Maxim gave the concerto its first performance on 10th May 1957, his 19th birthday. Shostakovich must have intended all along that this would be a “birthday present” for, while he remained covertly dissident (the Eleventh Symphony was just around the corner), the concerto is utterly devoid of all subterfuge, cryptic codes and hidden messages. Instead, it brims with youthful vigour, vitality, romance – and such sheer damned mischief that I reckon that it must be a “character study” of Maxim.
Shostakovich wrote intensely serious music, and music of satirical, sarcastic humour (often combining the two). He also enjoyed producing affable, inoffensive “light music”. But here is yet another aspect, the “Haydnesque”, both wittily amusing and formally stimulating:
First Movement: Allegro Tongue firmly in cheek, Shostakovich begins this sonata movement with a perky little introduction (bassoon), accompaniment for the piano playing the first subject proper, equally perky but maybe just a touch tipsy. Then, bang! – the piano and snare-drum take off like the clappers. Over chugging strings, the piano eases in the second subject, also slightly inebriate but gradually melting into a horn-warmed modulation. With a thunderous “rock ‘n’ roll” vamp the piano bulldozes into an amazingly inventive development, capped by a huge climax that sounds suspiciously like a cheeky skit on Rachmaninov. A massive unison (Shostakovich apparently skitting one of his own symphonic habits!) reprises the second subject first. Suddenly alone, the piano winds cadentially into a deliciously decorated first subject, before charging for the line with the orchestra hot on its heels.
Second Movement: Andante Simplicity is the key, and for the opening cloud-shrouded string theme the key is minor. Like the sun breaking through, an effect as magical as it is simple, the piano enters in the major. This enchanting counter-melody, at first blossoming and warming the orchestra, itself gradually clouds over as the musing piano drifts into the shadowy first theme. The sun peeps out again, only to set in long, arpeggiated piano figurations, whose tips evolve the merest wisps of rhythm . . .
Finale: Allegro . . .which the piano grabs and turns into a cheekily chattering tune in duple time, sparking variants as it whizzes along. A second subject interrupts, abruptly – it has no choice as its septuple time must willy-nilly play the chalk to the other’s cheese. The movement is a riot, these two incompatible clowns constantly elbowing one another aside to show off ever more outrageously. In and amongst, the piano keeps returning to a rippling figuration, which I fancifully regard as a “straight man” vainly trying to referee. Who wins? Don’t ask – just enjoy the bout!