Dmitri Shostakovich: Melvin Chen, piano. Bridge Records, Inc. 9238, © 2007. 67:17. $14.99.

In the year of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Centennial Celebration, the composer’s works were performed world-wide. Recorded in June 2006, this extraordinary compact disc contains signature piano works by the Russian composer, the Piano Sonatas Op. 12 and Op. 61. Rounding out the recording are two suites: Ten Aphorisms, Op. 13 and Dances of the Dolls. They are performed by Renaissance man, Melvin Chen, who is also an accomplished violinist with a doctorate in chemistry. He serves on the piano faculty at Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Shostakovich’s life was cloaked in mystery, with myths that will no doubt take time to dispel. Biographer Ian MacDonald’s well-researched The New Shostakovich (Pimlico, 2006) sheds light on the subject with masterful analyses and historical accounts — it’s a “must read” for the serious listener. MacDonald argues that, to understand the composer, one must examine carefully his music and those who knew him.

Shostakovich’s precariously guarded life made it difficult for even his contemporaries to closely know him, yet another artist and critic, the poet Anna Akhmatova, who admired his work from a distance “…saw deeper into him than he himself did.” (MacDonald, p.342) And after meeting Prokofiev as a young man, we know that the two composers had a long relationship. Aside from his family, however, Ivan Sollertinsky was his most important influence and friend. He was a musicologist and fellow traveler, MacDonald remarks, and “Excited by each other’s minds, the two carried on endless competition to see who could make the wittiest remark…; Sollertinsky may have reawakened the joker in Shostakovich…” (p. 55). The earlier two piano works on this CD are representative of the period when they were most free to associate. Chen’s skilled performance is important, and placed within the socio-historical context in which the music was composed, this recording reveals an intimate portrait of the man.

Chen begins with the familiar suite in seven sections, The Dances of the Dolls. He refers them as “charming,” and they are, but they offer a glimpse into Shostakovich’s creative world and perhaps a lens into which he looked back. Reflecting his wry humor, his musical language is simple, with few subtle but quirky outbursts of seemingly “wrong notes” and boisterous little codettas.

Shostakovich wrote Ten Aphorisms in 1927, the year after his first piano sonata. MacDonald refers to them as “macabre” and “grotesque.” Later banned by the authorities, they are youthful forays into contemporary twentieth-century idioms. Snippets of whole tone scale, chromaticism and Webernian-like angularity, they are terse and witty — characteristics which were proclaimed bourgeoisie and considered “formalistic.” Chen’s performance is lively and articulate, and the contrapuntal voicing is precise.

A brilliant pianist, Shostakovich considered a performing career. Chen views the first piano sonata as “a virtuoso vehicle for himself [Shostakovich].” Composed in three classical-style movements (Allegro, Lento, Allegro) and played without pause, it is dramatically brief (12:50). MacDonald refers to the first movement as “positively demonic.” Woven between two frenetic outer layers, and against a furious percussive statement in the lowest register of the piano, the middle movement evokes Alban Berg’s 1925 opera Wozzeck. Chen flexes his muscles here with strong technique and facility.

The emotional heart of the recording is the Sonata No. 2, Op. 61 (1943). Written during a period of illness and surely accompanied by substantial grief, it is deep and introspective. Shostakovich first performed it in Moscow in June during a lull of the siege in Leningrad. Interestingly, the march-like thematic material of the first movement resembles Prokofiev’s flute sonata, penned during the same year, and with the urging of David Oistrakh, transcribed for violin and piano. Like the first sonata, the middle movement is somber, the calm between two storms. Chen’s sensitive and restrained playing is breathtaking here. The last movement, a haunting theme with variations, brings the recording to a close. Scholar and music critic Malcolm MacDonald, who wrote the liner notes, compares it to the finales of the Beethoven sonatas. The final variation, exquisitely played, will remain with me. Ian MacDonald’s conclusion about the work sums it up elegantly:

A premonition of the withdrawn, whispering style of his late period, the sonata stands like a tarn of contemplative stillness at the heart of one of its composer’s most mountainously ambitious periods. (p.190)

Composed for the medium Shostakovich so loved, these works speak to us where words fail. And if we are to better understand the composer, this recording helps by communicating deeply. Chen’s brilliant performance impresses me as evidence of deep commitment to an honest portrayal of the composer’s musical intent: he illuminates the towering figure Shostakovich truly was.