Explore the Score: Shostakovich Piano Concerto no. 1

Next Performance

Russian Strings

13 May, 2015
7:30 PM
English String Orchestra
Kenneth Woods- principal conductor
Elgar Concert Hall,  Birmingham University, B15 2T


Shostakovich (arr. Barshai)- Chamber Symphony opus 110a (String Quartet no. 8)
Shostakovich- Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings
Clare Hammond-piano, Simon Desbruslais- trumpet
Geoffrey Gordon- Saint Blue for Piano, Trumpet and Strings (World Premiere)
Tchaikovsky- Serenade for Strings

Tickets £20 Over 60’s £15 students £5
BOX OFFICE- Town Hall/Symphony Hall ON SALE SOON
http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/bramall/index.aspx • 0121 345 0600

The ESO are proud to welcome two of today’s most exciting soloists to Elgar Concert Hall. Trumpet virtuoso Simon Desbruslais and rising piano star, Clare Hammond, are quickly making a name for themselves as the leading piano and trumpet duo of our time. This evening of great Russian string music includes works by Shostakovich and the lyrical and thrilling Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky.



Dmitri Shostakovich- Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, op 35

In many ways, Shostakovich was a quintessentially Russian composer. As a symphonist one can certainly hear the influence of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and even, to an extent, Rachmaninoff in their powerful orchestration and epic forms. On the other hand, in the concerto medium, and particularly in the piano concerto, he moves about as far away from the great Russian models as one can. Compare the Shostakovich concerto heard tonight with those of Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky and it’s hard to accept they’re in the same genre. It’s even harder to reconcile the fact that Rachmaninoff was still active when this piece was written in 1933.

Where Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and even Brahms had expanded the piano concerto into something like a symphony for piano and orchestra—huge, dramatic works over 40 minutes for vast orchestras, with piano writing that made the instrument itself sound like an orchestra—Shostakovich turned the genre into something completely new. His work is brimming with wit and sarcasm, clean and transparent where his predecessors’ were lush and voluptuous.

Shostakovich composed the work for his own use. He had been a very accomplished pianist as a student, even playing the Hammerklavier Sonata, perhaps the ultimate test for any pianist, on his graduation recital. Once he’d made the choice to dedicate himself to composition, piano playing became an essentially private activity for him. Throughout most of his life, until motor neurone disease left him unable to play, he continued to read chamber music with friends and to play and study at home. However, in his early career, as his reputation was expanding rapidly, he began to get requests to appear as a performer, so in 1933, he set to work on his first piano concerto, which he later premiered with the Leningrad Philharmonic and Yevgeny Mravinksy.

In the 1920’s Shostakovich’s piano skills had enabled him to feed his family by playing for silent movies. The experience obviously shaped this piece, which is full of music that sounds like it could have been ripped from a Charlie Chaplin film.

Throughout the work, the piano writing is extremely sparse- much closer to Mozart than Rachmaninoff, rarely going beyond two parts at once. It intentionally never even approaches the orchestral fullness of earlier Russian composers. The orchestration is also minimal- only strings and solo trumpet, who helps highlight the comedic content of the work. Shostakovich wrote the trumpet part with the principal trumpet player of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Alexander Schmidt, in mind.

Even in this early work, one can detect the unlikely influence of Mahler in the way Shostakovich constantly juxtaposes humour and grotesquery on the one hand with the deepest tragedy and vulnerability on the other. The second movement, a Lento, is one of his saddest and most heart-wrenching creations, and yet the piece ends with a musical joke that surely would have drawn a smile from the ultimate musical humourist, Haydn.
–Kenneth Woods c. 2007

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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4 comments on “Explore the Score: Shostakovich Piano Concerto no. 1”

  1. Zoltan

    Whenever I hear this piece, I respond with a wide range of emotions (interestingly, I find Shostakovitch’s 2nd Piano Concerto quite similar in that sense); I even smile sometimes hearing the last few minutes of the work.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan
    Great to hear from you.

    I actuallhy laughed out loud the first time I heard the finale when the pianist launches into the crazed bar piano music at the end…. I thought that was a sign of a great piece


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