It had to happen. Following his superb set of Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues two years ago, Alexander Melnikov has turned to the composer's piano concertos. The Russian pianist's own liner notes engage and illuminate; not that these incandescent performances need verbal explanation or justification.

In a few pages, Melnikov makes essential and sometimes unexpected connections. He reveals the struggle between the objectivist and humanist Shostakovich and, at one point, evokes a shivery image of sinister phantoms bursting from what seems a cheerful score.

Melnikov sets off with the 1957 Second Concerto, one of the composer's friendliest pieces. Its outer movements are circusy affairs, with climaxes worthy of a Soviet big-screen epic.

The spirit of Rachmaninov lingers over the Andante, and Melnikov delivers what must be Shostakovich's most lyrical utterance with such noble tenderness.


The strings of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra offer rapturous support here; elsewhere conductor Teodor Currentzis encourages his players to enjoy all the fun of the fair.

At the other end of the disc is the First Concerto, written when Shostakovich was only 19. Melnikov and his team let the unbridled energy of youth have its 22 minutes. The fast movements play catch-me-if-you-can, while sparks that could have come from Bach and Rossini dart back and forth over the tantalisingly unpredictable pages. Trumpeter Jeroen Berwaerts is a brilliant sparring partner.

Yet for all this sardonic merriment, the climax of the slow movement hints at wrenching agonies.

Alexander Melnikov provides an entr'acte with the composer's Violin Sonata, alongside violinist Isabelle Faust, a familiar partner from their prize-winning collection of Beethoven Sonatas a few years back.

This 1968 work deals in starker beauties. The two musicians rove in spare, Bachian environs for much of the first movement. Occasionally they break into grim, tentative dances that look forward to the savage central Allegro, captured here in all its chilling malevolence.

In the final movement, they create oases of the purest chorale-like clarity, hinting perhaps of some sort of spiritual release, before we are drawn back into Concerto Carnival once more.

Album: Shostakovich: Piano Concertos (Harmonia Mundi, through Ode Records)
Stars: 5/5
Verdict: Russian pianist delivers Shostakovich with sparks and soul.