Shostakovich began young as a professional pianist and he continued on and off to play his own music until illness robbed him of his muscular power in the later 1960s. In his early years he wrote a good deal of solo music for himself to play. In later years he was more sparing, composing a certain amount for other players but for himself only this profound and lucid wartime sonata. It is dedicated to the memory of his erstwhile piano teacher Leonid Nikolayev, and touchingly quotes once or twice from some of the music Shostakovich used to play to Nikolayev when he was still a teenager.
Given the success of his other major piano pieces like the 24 Preludes op.34 and the 24 Preludes and Fugues op.87, it is curious that this Second Sonata has not been taken up by many pianists in our time. Partly this is because, although this music is difficult to play, it is almost entirely undemonstrative, lacking in the more obviously colourful and virtuosic elements that a performer knows will make an impression on an audience. Instead, for much of its three movements it is like a study in greys, internalised, meditative and almost inscrutable. Nonetheless one or two great 20th century players have taken it up, including Maria Yudina and Emil Gilels, and in their performances the piece emerges as impressively deep and thoughtful. This is aristocratic music that contains its meaning within itself and invites the listener to the inside of the musical argument rather than to the surface rhetoric or sound effects.
Note by Gerard McBurney