Composed in 1957 for his son Maxim’s graduation recital, the Second Piano Concerto is regarded by some as one of Shostakovich’s lesser works. Shostakovich himself said that it had “no redeeming artistic merits.” Nonetheless, he performed it often and recorded it on LP, leading many to conclude that his harsh appraisal was actually a swipe at the Soviet establishment, for whom “redeeming artistic merit” was music that expressed socialist ideals.
A patriotic tract the Second Piano Concerto is certainly not. What it is—and what makes so many of us love it—is droll and high-spirited and, in the great second movement Andante, ravishingly beautiful. As with so much of Shostakovich’s music there is an element of satire in the opening and closing Allegros, where the piano capers against military drum tattoos and joins in a closing march (with high-flying piccolo). But it is that sad, slow, gorgeous Andante that makes the work so treasurable. It may be the most beautiful music Shostakovich ever wrote.
I know of no other performance as magically “right” as this one from Bernstein, who not only conducts but plays the piano part. The sound here is even better—fuller, warmer—than on the original Columbia.