- Dmitri Shostakovich, Pianist
The dust-jacket blurb on Sofia Moshevich's Dmitri Shostakovich, Pianist claims that the author uses Shostakovich's recordings as "primary sources to discover what made his playing unique and to dispel commonly held myths about his style of interpretation." Such a book would indeed be a welcome addition to the literature, as would a book that discussed any or all of the composer's masterful piano works in detail. Questions surrounding the performance and interpretation of Shostakovich's music are abundant—from metronome markings and pedaling to articulations and phrasing [End Page 766] —and certainly a study of his own solutions to such pianistic and interpretive problems could illuminate such concerns. Unfortunately, this book accomplishes nothing of the sort. Instead, it combines superficial commentary on most (but not all) of Shostakovich's piano music with scant discussion of his recorded performances, all couched within a chronological-biographical narrative that adds nothing to the excellent standard English-language biographies by Laurel E. Fay (Shostakovich: A Life [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000]), and Elizabeth Wilson (Shostakovich: A Life Remembered [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994]). Perhaps most egregiously—and part of the blame for this surely falls upon the book's editors—the book is riddled with typographical errors, grammatical and syntactical awkwardness (in the form of misused commas and the like), and writing for which we would chastise undergraduate students—to wit: "On Yavorsky's suggestion, the suite was given the apt title Aphorisms. Indeed, these extraordinary little pieces do sound much like brief musical aphorisms" (p. 53), or worse, "Lady Macbeth differs from The Nose both in plot and in music" (p. 66).
By all accounts, Shostakovich was a stupendous pianist. The instrument, under his hands, was no mere vehicle for his unquestioned virtuosity, nor was it solely a means of conveying emotion, though it clearly served him in both capacities. Primarily, the piano was a tool that served Shostakovich in daily rituals associated with his near miraculous skills and musicianship. Reading his biographies, one notices the frequency with which his friends and associates recount stories of Shostakovich improvising party music, playing through his latest symphonic work in piano arrangement, sight-reading, score-reading, and demonstrating the forceful power of his memory. And, of course, from his first year of study at age 9, in 1915, he performed publicly—at times (for instance, the 1927 Chopin Competition in Warsaw) in the most exalted of settings. A favorite composer in his repertory was Robert Schumann, whose idiosyncratic rhythm and obsession with counterpoint would have appealed to the likewise-inclined young composer.
But ultimately it was his own music that kept Shostakovich at the piano, even after mobility in his hands was permanently weakened by poliomyelitis from 1958 onward. After a series of concerts in Rostov-on-Don in February 1930, where he played the first piano concertos of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev with the local orchestra, he never again appeared as a solo pianist playing the work of another composer. Indeed, he learned no new concert repertory after 1928. Recalling the difficult choices he faced during these years, he noted in a 1956 article, "Thoughts About the Path Traveled" (Dumi o proidennom puti), "After graduating from the Conservatory, I faced the dilemma of what to become—a pianist or a composer? The latter won out, but to tell the truth, I should have been both" (p. 66).
Where Shostakovich maintained his relationship with the piano was, of course, in his composing, and here is a subject on which one yearns for more extended discussion. Moshevich's book does include some reminiscences and other quoted material not found, for instance, in Wilson's magesterial compendium of recollections. But Moshevich does nothing with this material, content to let it rest unobserved while continuing on with the book's redundant biographical account. For instance, in a vivid and lengthy passage, musicologist, composer, and critic Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky—a close friend of Shostakovich's from his...