Timeless Shostakovich Riddles Answered

A superb pairing of Martin Helmchen and the LSO brings a smile to the face of this sombre piece.

Composer: Shostakovich
Repertoire: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Piano Quintet in G Minor
Artists: Martin Helmchen, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
Rating: 4/5

Genre: Orchestral
Label: LPO 0053

The Music: Shostakovich’s 1940 Piano Quintet was written at the height of Stalin’s purges, forcing the most acerbic and satirical aspects of his style to the margins, to be replaced by sombre, studious neo-classicism. Well, almost – the Scherzo sounds like a suppressed schoolboy giggle to these ears. The two piano concertos – from 1933 and 1957 – are timeless Shostakovich riddles.

The Performance: The Piano Quintet opens with a Bachian flourish to set the tone, and pianist Martin Helmchen wants you to know that Shostakovich isn’t messing about here. The second movement Fugue develops in extended sentences towards its intensely mournful climax; Helmchen, with string players from the LPO, negotiates its bumpy topography, and that lurches towards the jokey Scherzo, and then towards the cathartic endpoint, with dramatic purpose and sensitivity. The subverted militarism of the second Concerto, with its strikingly lovely Chopinesque second movement, are also thoughtfully expressed; only the joke-a- minute First Concerto falls slightly flat… 

The Verdict: ...but for honorable reasons. Helmchen’s mission seems to be to strip away layers of learnt understanding around these often performed works – looking afresh at the material itself – which works well for the Quintet and Second Concerto, but the more transparent First Concerto yields less. 

Want More? Martha Argerich’s recent performances of the First Concerto and Piano Quintet (EMI Classics, 504 5042) tell it like it is.