Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor is the musical equivalent of a smirking jokester.
It is a rule-breaking, Neo-baroque romp filled with sardonic humor, parody, and fleeting musical quotes. Completed by the young Shostakovich in 1933, it is actually a double concerto in which the solo trumpet and piano converse against the backdrop of a string orchestra. (The alternate title is “Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra”). By one account, the piece started off as a trumpet concerto and evolved into its ultimate form.
Beginning in 1924, Shostakovich was employed as a pianist accompanying silent films, a job which often involved improvisation and the patching together of disparate musical elements. He would go on to compose scores for 37 films during the course of his career. These cinematic influences seem to have found their way into the First Piano Concerto. As the music cuts from one “scene” to another, frivolous circus music blends with veiled quotes from Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and Rage Over a Lost Penny, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D Major, Shostakovich’s own incidental music, folk songs, and even Al Jolson’s 1924 Broadway hit, California, Here I Come (heard in a cadenza near the end of the final movement). This music, filled with youthful freedom, came three years before Shostakovich faced his first dose of cultural censorship from the Soviet officials following the performance of his scandalous opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
The First Piano Concerto is set in four movements rather than the customary three. The first movement (Allegro moderato) opens with a colorful piano flourish and a brash “wrong note” in the trumpet. The piano’s dark, restless opening theme soon devolves into wild, zany fun. The second movement (Lento) is a haunting and introspective waltz. There are sombre allusions to the dreamy second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, completed a few years earlier in 1931. In the final moments, the theme emerges as a lonely, plaintive statement in the muted trumpet. The icy final bars are reminiscent of the end of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which ends in the same melancholy key of G minor. The Moderato which follows functions as an introduction to the final movement (Allegro con brio). The Concerto concludes with a furious virtuosic tour de force in which practical jokes abound.
Here is Martha Argerich’s 2006 concert recording with Jakub Waszczeniuk (trumpet) and the Warsaw-based Sinfonia Varsovia led by Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky:
I. Allegro moderato:
IV. Allegro con brio:
- Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35, Martha Argerich, Jakub Waszczeniuk, Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky, Sinfonia Varsovia Amazon
Featured Image: Dmitri Shostakovich