Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano (Shostakovich)

…Here we get the composer at his most light-hearted – you can almost hear in these dances a young Shostakovich playing the piano to accompany silent films.

Program note
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano
(arr. Levon Atovmyan)

IV. Waltz
V. Polka

If you’re familiar with the searing intensity and raw bombast of Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies, his Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano (performed in this concert with harp) might come as a surprise. Here we get the composer at his most light-hearted – you can almost hear in these dances a young Shostakovich playing the piano to accompany silent films.

Shostakovich met fellow composer Levon Atovmyan in 1929 and the two became lifelong friends – letters between the pair are a treasure trove of information about musical life in Russia. Atovmyan arranged a number of suites from Shostakovich’s film and theatre scores and his arrangements no doubt contributed to Shostakovich’s widespread popularity. This set of five chamber pieces draws on music from a variety of different sources including the score for the 1955 film The Gadfly, as well as several theatre works.

The fourth movement is a delightful waltz, tinged with melancholy. This music’s provenance is unclear, however. One theory claims that it was salvaged from Shostakovich’s score for an animated film project that fell apart, The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda – but a concert suite of music from that project doesn’t include this waltz. It has even been speculated that Atovmyan may have written it himself. While a sense of longing pervades the waltz, there’s none of the bitterness or irony that characterises the brutal waltz in the third movement of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony – this waltz is more in the vein of the dance that opens the Jazz Suite No. 1 of 1934.

The lively Polka comes from the 1935 ballet The Limpid Stream, which was condemned by the Soviet authorities alongside the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District the following year. The upbeat music originally accompanied the ‘Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor Driver’. 

© Angus McPherson, 2021

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