About this work
Shostakovich's piano music is relatively little played, but it began to make significant inroads into the repertoire in the later years of the twentieth century. Clearly, his solo piano works are considerably different from his symphonies, lacking their epic qualities, their tragedy, and their grandiose formal designs.
The composer's Piano Sonata No. 2 of 1942 appeared at a time when Shostakovich felt a bit safer from attacks by war-diverted party censors -- yet not safe from the invading Nazis. However, there is little in the work to suggest the agonies and tumult of the war expressed in his other works from the period, such as the 1941 Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad") and 1943 Symphony No. 8. Nor does the work in any way attempt to challenge Shostakovich's rival Prokofiev on the latter's turf: it shies away from the drama, violence, and bolder language found in his older colleague's sixth and seventh sonatas. But the Shostakovich sonata is uncompromising in its own way, featuring a mesmerizing, hallucinatory slow movement and compelling outer movements, which are, if not particularly innovative, unyielding in their adherence to a dry and somewhat detached expressive language. Still, this sonata is much more traditional than the composer's first, whose brashness and sonic mayhem conjure images of the young Shostakovich with a hammer smashing bugs.
The Sonata No. 2 consists of three movements, the first two of which are in the seven-to-eight minute range, while the finale nearly matches their combined length. The first movement (Allegretto) is fairly light, despite the tension and dissonance that come in the development. The main theme, heard at the outset against running figures in the right hand, has a tart charm. Overall, the first movement offers a mixture of mischievous delight and rowdy humor.
The aforementioned strange second movement contrasts stands in brilliant contrast to the first by presenting music that seems to come from a netherworld, owing to its haziness and dark mood. The Largo tempo at times holds the flow of the music back, threatening to bring it to the verge of stasis. Yet this movement may be the most effective of the three, not least because of the composer's deft coloration and subtle shifts in mood. At several times the music does seem to come to a halt, especially in a passage where the left hand plays a blunt chord in the bass to accompany the right as it delivers an idea in slow motion in the upper register. Everything holds together and remains wonderfully atmospheric.
The finale (Moderato) features an attractive theme that seems to wander as it slowly gains momentum. Shostakovich presents some very interesting contrapuntal writing involving this theme in the variations that follow the exposition. The tempo increases in the first two, and slower and faster passages alternate thereafter. In the slow sections the mood at times turns reflective, almost lapsing into the hypnotic quality of the Largo. The theme is transformed in colorful and beautiful ways throughout the movement.
Shostakovich himself premiered the work on November 11, 1943. Despite the championing of this sonata by Emil Gilels it never entered the standard repertory, though recent renewed interest in the entirety of this composer's output may change that status in the coming decades.