The sight of a new YouTube video put a smile on my face: the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Yuja Wang, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. The performance took place on May 28.
Hang on: Shostakovich, for a smile? Isn’t he good for dictatorial terror? Well, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the most happy-making pieces in creation. Shostakovich wrote it in 1957 for the nineteenth birthday of his son, Maxim. Maxim was a piano student (as well as a conducting student). The concerto is full of practicing: scales and the like. Of course, this “practicing” is artfully done.
The first movement is jaunty, tuneful, irresistible. The middle movement is a sighing, dreamy song. The final movement is both neat and rip-roaring. This is a superbly crafted concerto, offering beauty and excitement in equal measure. Shostakovich pretended to be dismissive of it, claiming it had “no redeeming artistic merits.” He believed no such thing. He played, conducted, and recorded it repeatedly.
At the end of the last century—the last millennium—the Piano Concerto No. 2 gained some fame via a movie: Fantasia 2000. Yefim Bronfman played the first movement, as the Disney animators told the story of The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Hans Christian Andersen). Even the hardest soul couldn’t fail to be enchanted.
There are many recordings of the concerto, but I believe I have a favorite, no offense to the others: Bronfman with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. That baby is tight and disciplined—with all the musicality required. The disc has a bonus: the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, with Bronfman and the Juilliard String Quartet. A Shostakovich disc that will last forever, presumably.
Once, I expressed admiration of the Piano Concerto No. 2 to Bronfman. He said that orchestras seldom requested it—they want the Piano Concerto No. 1, if they want a Shostakovich piano concerto—which was a shame.
Yuja Wang is a natural for the second concerto. She is precise, clear, and, of course, virtuosic. Also, she has a sense of fun. I could pick at her and Tilson Thomas and the LSO, but my purpose in this little post is to hail the concerto. Moreover, Yuja & Co. are to be enjoyed.
Shostakovich wrote six concertos: two for violin, two for cello, two for piano. In each case—each pair—No. 1 is the more popular. But don’t forget the second concertos, especially the one for piano.