Shostakovich Piano Concertos

I’d like to introduce you to another fine classical music recording I’ve recently discovered, but first a little editorializing about classical recordings in general.

I hope the day never comes when physical media in the form of compact discs (or something similar) is completely replaced by digital downloads or streaming. The booklet enclosed with physical media always provides useful and often enlightening information about the music, and there’s artistry on the front and back covers. Having been in COVID-19 lockdown for nearly a year now, I yearn for real human interaction without technology instead of “virtual everything”. And I say that as a person who has made his career as a computer programmer. What does that have to do with music on a CD? Well, perhaps I’ve digressed, but let me just say a recording is a poor substitute for a live performance, and a digital file is a poor substitute for a CD. Happily, I have read recently that classical music is keeping the CD alive as popular music largely goes the way of the computer file. As for CD packaging, I much prefer a well-made jewel case (with a hub whose teeth don’t break off easily) over the cardboard digipak that is seeing more frequent use, including the Shostakovich disc I will be briefly discussing here.

I much prefer discs that feature works of just one composer. Not only are they more easily filed and retrieved, but, more importantly, they often introduce you to some lesser-known works of a composer. Something I have learned over my many years of listening to classical music recordings is that there are many first-rate lesser-known works of composers, both famous and not-so-famous. There is a lot of great music out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed, even after a lifetime of listening!

This disc featuring Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya (who now lives in Germany) is one such happy occasion. It features the two piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich (himself a fine pianist), plus two of his lesser-known works for two pianos (joined here by Ivan Rudin), Concertino for Two Pianos, op. 94, and Tarantella for Two Pianos, both of which were unknown to me. An all-Shostakovich disc!

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This disc is a delight from beginning to end. Anna Vinnitskaya plays Shostakovich as well as anyone I have heard, with great intensity, energy, and precision during the rhythmic passages, and with great beauty and sensitivity during the legato passages. The Kremerata Baltica is really outstanding in the two piano concertos, as is the quality of the recording. The latter is much above average, I would say, perfectly balanced and articulated. Vinnitskaya herself conducts the orchestra from the piano in the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, op. 35, where she is joined by a fine trumpet soloist, Tobias Willmer. Omer Meir Wellber skillfully conducts the orchestra in the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 102, and the Kremerata Baltica is joined by the Winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden in a perfect union and performance.

Anna Vinnitskaya grew up with the music of Shostakovich in her household, and developed an early and deep appreciation of his music and it shows throughout this recording. She performed his Second Piano Concerto for the first time at the age of eleven, and now at age 37, I have no doubt she is one of the finest performers of the piano music of Shostakovich in the world today. I hope I will have the opportunity to hear her play either of the Shostakovich piano concertos in the concert hall one day soon. Or any other piano works by Shostakovich, for that matter!


One thing I have become acutely aware of after decades of listening to classical music is the enormous difference there can be between live performances or recordings of the same work. Tempo can be one obvious difference. I tend not to like music that is on the fast end of the tempo continuum for a given work—I like to “savor” the notes. But anything as complex and nuanced as an orchestral palette can lend itself to many different interpretations. Yes, the notes are the same, but how a piece is played can make the difference between enthusiasm for the work or complete indifference.

Prokofiev’s Last Symphony

Photograph of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Dated 1950.

Sergei Prokofiev was truly one of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. His signature disjunct melodies and quirky, perky compositional style is so interesting and unique that his music is instantly recognizable, even today. When critics complain that the wellspring of current musical idioms has become exhausted or derivative, along comes a composer like Prokofiev who surprises everyone and does something completely different. That is why I believe that even within established musical forms it is possible to invent something completely new and exciting—it just doesn’t happen very often.

Regrettably, no English-language documentary about the life and music of Prokofiev has ever been produced. While we wait for someone to do that, perhaps Robert Greenberg might add another excellent installment to his “Great Masters” series for The Great Courses by profiling Sergei Prokofiev in eight 30-minute episodes as he did for Shostakovich, Brahms, and others.

Sergei Prokofiev composed his last completed work, the Symphony No. 7, between December 1951 and July 1952 at the age of 60-61. Its first public performance in Moscow on October 11, 1952 would be the last public performance Prokofiev would attend. He died less than five months later.

Dmitri Shostakovich attended the premiere, and quickly sent a letter of congratulations to Prokofiev, “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.” Shostakovich would attend Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953.

Iconic photo of the three greatest 20th-century Soviet composers, together. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Dated 1940.

The most inspired recording I have ever heard of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton conducting. Even though I was already familiar with this work, listening to this performance was like hearing the work for the first time. This interpretation is intimate and compelling.

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The last years of Prokofiev’s life were difficult ones. His health was deteriorating and Stalin’s terrible regime was a constant threat and source of anxiety. Official disapproval had led to a life of poverty for Prokofiev.

With that as a backdrop, Prokofiev was eager that his new symphony would be well received by the authorities as well as the public, hoping that it would earn him a First Class Stalin Prize—he needed the money. But like Shostakovich, Prokofiev took his symphonies seriously, pouring his heart and soul into them while cleverly embedding what he wanted to say musically in a way that would elude the authorities with their limited musical sophistication and intelligence.

Prokofiev even wrote two endings for the symphony. The “real” ending and a contrived ending to please the authorities and help him win the prize. (He did not win the hoped for Stalin Prize, but he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize for this symphony in 1957.)

Prokofiev told his friend, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava, you will live much longer than me, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” As Andrew Huth writes in the liner notes, “Both versions of the ending are included on this disc so that listeners can judge the very different effect each makes.” Track 9 is the final movement of Symphony No. 7 played again with the alternative ending that Prokofiev wrote to please the authorities.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) with Sergei Prokofiev

Scythia Sweet

One of the enjoyable aspects of recording asteroids passing in front of stars (we call them asteroid occultations) is the interesting names of some of the asteroids. This month, Bob Dunford, Steve Messner, and I had two double-chord events across the asteroid 1306 Scythia, discovered in this month of 1930 by Soviet astronomer Grigory Neujmin (1886-1946).

The name 1306 Scythia immediately brought to mind a favorite piece of music, the Scythian Suite—surely one of the most unusual and otherworldly compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, or anyone else for that matter.

A quick look at the entry for 1306 Scythia in the 5th edition of Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D. Schmadel (1942-2016) quickly confirmed my suspicion that the subject matter of both asteroid and musical composition is the same.

Named for the country of the ancient Scythians comprising parts of Europe and Asia now in the U.S.S.R. in regions north of the Black sea and east of the Aral sea.

In the wee hours of Friday, July 12, Bob Dunford in Illinois and I in Wisconsin observed only the second asteroid occultation of 1306 Scythia (and the first since 2014). The predicted path is shown below.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star Tycho 5189-597-1 (UCAC4 414-136241) on 12 July 2019 UT.

Bob, who was observing at Naperville, observed a 4.3-second dip in brightness as the asteroid covered the star between 8:23:46.203 and 8:23:50.531 UT, and I, observing at Dodgeville, observed a 1.3-second event between 8:24:01.783 and 8:24:03.054. Our light curves are shown below.

Bob Dunford’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 14-inch telescope.
David Oesper’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 12-inch telescope.

Here’s a map showing our observing locations relative to the predicted path.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations

Here’s the profile showing the chords across the asteroid.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Just four days later, both Bob Dunford and I had a high probability event of the same asteroid passing in front of a different star, and this time we were joined by Steve Messner. Bob and Steve both got positives! Unfortunately, I was clouded out.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star TYC 5188-573-1 on 16 July 2019 UT.
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the Scythian Suite in 1915 when he was 24 years of age. Even at that young age, Prokofiev already showed great talent and originality.

Sergei Prokofiev, circa 1918

Here are some excerpts of the Scythian Suite performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. This is a 1983 recording (Vox Box CD3X 3016). The movement descriptions are based on those given in Wikipedia.

1st movement: Invocation to Veles and Ala – barbaric and colorful music describing the Scythians’ invocation of the sun.

Some of the music you’ve heard in the original “Star Trek” certainly was inspired by this.
Alien landscape music
Alien landscape music #2

2nd movement: The Alien God and the Dance of the Evil Spirits – as the Scythians make a sacrifice to Ala, daughter of Veles, the Alien God performs a violent dance surrounded by seven monsters.

Best to observe this nasty dance from a distance…
This certainly reminds me of Dmitri Shostakovich, but he was only 9 years old at the time and just beginning to compose!

3rd movement: Night – the Alien God harms Ala; the Moon Maidens descend to console her.

This beautiful movement of many moods begins peacefully, then moves to a section of descending lines that might remind you of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, but this was being written at the exact same time as the Scythian Suite! Next the music takes an ominous turn, and then returns to a little night music, but more a travel through interstellar or intergalactic space rather than a terrestrial night.

4th movement: The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Cortège of the Sun – Lolli, the hero, comes to save Ala; the Sun God assists him in defeating the Alien God. They are victorious, and the suite ends with a musical picture of the sunrise.

Here, now, the conclusion of this remarkable work.

Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. There is nothing else like it in the orchestral repertoire!

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4

The Fourth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was completed in May 1936, but had to be withdrawn before it was performed due to the withering criticism and scrutiny Shostakovich was at the time receiving from Joseph Stalin and his increasingly repressive government.  This symphony did not receive its first public performance until 1961.  To get a sense of the enormous difficulties Shostakovich had to endure under the Soviet regime—and the extraordinary music of one of the 20th century’s most gifted composers, and indeed the last great symphonist—I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s eight-part video course, Great Masters: Shostakovich – His Life and Music.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

The Fourth Symphony is certainly not one of Shostakovich’s more accessible works, but I want to draw your attention to the remarkable, ethereal conclusion of this symphony that few have ever heard.

My entire Shostakovich collection was lost in the Memorial Day weekend 2015 Houston flood, and I’m gradually trying to replace it.  I am currently listening to all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies in an excellent box set, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007).  Rostropovich was a close friend of Shostakovich.

Here is the final 4m45s of the third and final movement (Largo — Allegro) of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43, by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.  Turn up the volume—after the first couple of seconds, it is all very quiet.  Enjoy!