Despite the controversy about his true political leanings that still bubbles up here and there, Shostakovich’s stock has not diminished since his death in 1975; if anything, it has risen, and he now stands as the leading musician of the Soviet Union under whose unforgiving umbrella he spent his whole career. Artists and writers in those difficult times learned to dissemble, and in music more than any other art form the dissembling is hard to detect and harder still to interpret. In addition, Shostakovich was an intensely shy and private man. His music thus poses the eternally teasing question of whether it means what it says or whether there are layers of hidden feeling beneath the surface. Is his childlike music really so innocent? Is his merrymaking the clown’s false grin? Could his apparent misery be anything other than real misery? Every listener must make his own intuitive judgment.
The Piano Quintet was composed in 1940 between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. The well-known Fifth Symphony, which, temporarily at least, had reinstated the composer in favor with the authorities, had raised him to a position where every work was performed and judged, with the expectation that he would maintain his position as the leading Soviet composer of the day. The Piano Quintet was an immediate success. It won the Stalin Prize in the same year and was played frequently by Soviet quartets, often with Shostakovich himself at the piano.
There’s no satire here, no angst, and no trace of the introversion found in much of his late music. One is tempted to describe it as a happy work, if anything by Shostakovich can be so described. Its tonality, G minor / major, is secure, and the processes are transparent. The second movement fugue is serenely worked out, and the scherzo that follows is disarmingly ebullient. When the fifth and last movement glides to its charming close we can easily imagine that behind those inscrutable Soviet glasses the composer is actually smiling. — Hugh Macdonald