SHOSTAKOVICH 24 PRELUDES AND FUGUES OP.87 by INTERNATIONAL PIANO
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Reviewed by Graham Lock
‘People close to him told me that he used to carry a briefcase with a change of underwear and a toothbrush in
constant expectation of arrest. Many people did that. It is also recounted how he waited for his arrest at night out
on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn't be disturbed if they came to get him’.
Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov on Shostakovich's life between 1948 and 1953
‘I play Bach every day. It has become a real necessity for me’.
Dmitri Shostakovich, 1951
In July 1950, Shostakovich was in Leipzig for a festival marking the bicentenary of Bach's death. As a jurist for the
international piano competition, he heard his young compatriot Tatiana Nikolayeva play music by Bach, including
a Prelude and Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier. It proved to be a propitious moment. While he had long
admired Bach, he found Nikolayeva’s playing inspiring and began to think about composing hi own cycle of
preludes and fugues.
Although he initially had in mind a set of technical exercises, he soon realized the expressive possibilities and, in
an extraordinary burst of creativity, composed the entire cycle of 24 Prelude and Fugues, his Op 87, between
October 1950 and February 1951. During this period, he played and discussed the work with friends, including
Nikolayeva, who acted as page-turner when he presented his cycle to the Composers' Union in Moscow in May
1951. (Under the Soviet system, new works had to be officially approved before they could be published and
performed in public).
The event became a fiasco. Shostakovich was a controversial figure: his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had
provoked Stalin's ire in the 1930s because of its avant-garde leanings, and his music was denounced again in the
notorious Zhdanov Decree of 1948, which aimed to stamp out ‘Formalism’. Whether through expedience or envy,
several members of the Composers' Union took the chance to humiliate Shostakovich at the meeting, vilifying the
Preludes and Fugues as 'ugly'. 'morbid', 'unhealthy' and 'of little ideological significance'. Nikolayeva spoke out in
his defence, as did the eminent pianist Mariya Yudina, bur to no avail. The official report from the meeting
condemned Shostakovich's music a 'wasted labour'.
Undeterred, Nikolayeva learned the Preludes and Fugue and played them herself at a meeting of the Composers'
Union the following year. This time they were approved. (She was a more polished pianist than Shostakovich, who
had apparently played poorly at the original meeting, but even so the Union's volte-face seems remarkable.
Nikolayeva gave the public premiere in Leningrad in December 1952 and a decade later she made the first
recording of the complete cycle for the Melodiya label: Shostakovich, who attended the sessions, gave her
performance his blessing. Nikolayeva continued to champion the work and made two further recordings of the
complete cycle, in 1987 and 1990.
Ironically, while her 1962 recording is close to definitive, it is these two later, rather laboured accounts that
became widely available and better known in the West; despite their faults, they helped to establish the Prelude
and Fugue both in the public mind and in the canon.
There are now more than a dozen recording of the complete cycle available; the music has also inspired a book of
poetry. Joanna Boulter's Twenty Four Preludes & Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich (Arc, 2006), and last year brought
the first book-length academic study. Mark Mazullo's fascinating Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues: Context,
Style, Performance, published by Yale University Press. Yudina's prophecy that the apparatchiks' jibes would
'wither away at their roots' has proved correct: Op 87 is now recognised a one of the 20th century's greatest work
for solo piano. What remains at issue is its precise nature.
To compose only what you want to compose is to test the boundaries of politics
- Joanna Boulter, 'Fugue'
Although the Well-Tempered Clavier was the model for the Prelude and Fugues, there are many differences
between the two. Unlike Bach, Shostakovich arranged his cycle not in chromatic order but according to an
ascending circle of fifths (with each major key pair followed by a pair in the relative minor). A Mark Mazullo points
out, this structure enabled Shostakovich to treat the cycle like a narrative, beginning with the inviting C major
Prelude and ending with the tremendous power of the D minor Fugue, a suitably epic climax to the cycle's journey.
The first 12 Preludes and Fugues are, generally, shorter and lighter in mood: the second 12 become both more
ruminative and more troubled, so the cycle seems to accrue gravitas as it progresses.
The music traverse a wide spectrum of emotion, from the funny A major Fugue to others that are suffused with
more ambiguous and tragic feeling. There arc other kinds of diversity too. Shostakovich alludes to Russian and
Jewish folk music, evokes bells and chanting choirs, and draw on the full resources of the Western classical
tradition: various Preludes, for example, employ the sarabande, the passacaglia, the chorale, the toccata and the
etude. He also pays homage to specific composers, notably Bach and Mussorgsky, although critics claim to hear
reference to many other. from Couperin to Schubert to Mahler.
Can they all be right? Shostakovich once said he enjoyed Jewish music because it was ‘multifaceted … It can appear
to be happy while it is tragic'; this, he added, was close to his idea of ‘what music should be. There should always
be two layers in music.' Given his life story, it is tempting to listen below the surface of his music and to hear the
deeper layer a hidden political subtexts. But they are hard to interpret with any certainty. Take the allusions to
Jewish music in the Preludes and Fugues, such as the klezmer-like F-sharp minor Prelude: is Shostakovich taking a
stand against Stalin's rampant anti- Semitism or did he include it because, as he says above, he liked Jewish music
as music? Aesthetic choice or political message? The frenetic, near-serialist D-flat major Fugue, its subject an
eleven-note tone row, is another puzzle. Is it cocking a snoot at Soviet strictures against 'Formalism', as many
commentators assume? Is it a parody of mechanistic Western modernism? Or is this a composer determined to
explore all the possibilities of musical language, whatever the political risks?
Perhaps such ambiguities are pan of the point. To leave your music open to interpretation, multifaceted and
multilayered, is to leave an aesthetic breathing space inside the vacuum of political repression; a tiny refuge from
the tyranny of official truth. As Joanna Boulter says in 'Fugue':
These are secret songs, melodies in the inner voices, for those with ears to hear
How many pianists have the ears to hear? There arc only 15 recordings of the complete Preludes and Fugues
currently available, so I have added a handful of discs that feature excerpts from the cycle by two of the most
authoritative interpreters who never recorded the entire work: Sviatoslav Richter and the composer himself
Shostakovich made the first recording of 16 of the 24 Preludes and fugues for the State archives in December
1951 and February 1952. Though a brilliant pianist in his younger days, by the 1950s his technique had become
less secure, afflicted by nerves and a weakness in his right hand that would later curtail his public performances.
Nonetheless, these sessions are essential listening for their insights into the composer's interpretations of his own
music. He's not afraid to depart from the score, for example, taking the C major Fugue faster and the G- sharp
minor Prelude lower than the metronome markings, each time to good effect. His playing style is often described
as brisk and unsentimental, and he can sound very jittery, as in the A minor and G major Fugue, even reducing the
flowing A major Fugue to a messy scramble. Yet elsewhere his touch is telling and apt - in the G minor Prelude, the
elegiac F major Prelude - and his treatment of the great D minor Fugue is a masterclass in pacing and tension.
His colleague Sviatoslav Richter began to perform excerpts from Op. 87 in the mid-1950s. A live Moscow recital
from 1956 feature eight of the Prelude and Fugue, including a thrilling dash through the dissonances of the D-flat
major Fugue, but the sound is recessed and muffled. Two months later he recorded several of the same pieces
again in the clearer acoustic of a Prague studio: the playing is detached, as if he were still finding the music's
measure, though there are fine versions of the G major and B minor pair. His best-known and justly celebrated
foray’s into the Prelude and Fugues are the six he recorded in Paris in 1963, where he reaches into the soul of the
music. A prancing A-Rat major Fugue, a crepuscular E minor Prelude, the G-sharp minor Prelude’s flinty grandeur:
all reveal his imperious finesse and impeccable judgments of tempo and dynamic.
When she made her debut recording of the cycle in 1962, Tatiana Nikolayeva too was at the height of her powers,
playing here with a serene assurance that perhaps only Richter ha matched. She spins a subtle enchantment from
the start and is especially hypnotic in some of the later, more meditative fugue, notably the mysterious B-flat
minor, where she seems to float through inner pace.
Her D minor Prelude and Fugue is a fitting culmination, awesome power given full rein by her awesome control.
Thirteen years passed before Australian pianist Roger Woodward recorded the first complete cycle in the West.
Woodward labels Nikolayeva ‘romantic’ and not only aligns himself with the alternative 'modernist' pianism of
Shostakovich and Richter ('detached, percussive, dry') but extends it into the realm of the absurd, zipping through
many of the early Prelude and Fugue at bizarrely fast tempo, as if denying himself the tiniest crumb of self-
expression. He eases up a little in the second half and the F-sharp major and E-flat minor pair in particular are
effective, but the closing Prelude and Fugue spool our in willful insouciance.
Nikolayeva was in her sixties when he recorded her second and third sets in 1987 and 1990. They are markedly
less successful than her first: her passion for the music remains undimmed but neither finger nor brain are as
nimble as they were and at faster tempo the results can sound fumbled. The leisurely tempo she adopts for some
of the sprightlier pieces are appealing bur the more contemplative fugues sometimes sink too deeply into
thought. The decline in her D minor Fugue is especially sad: the 1987 version is ponderous, the 1990 struggles to a
plateau rather than a climax.
These sets were the first versions of the Preludes and Fugues many of us heard (and loved) and their release
prompted a steady flow of new interpretations throughout the 1990s.
Marios Papadopoulos treats the cycle to a cool, respectful appraisal that focuses on tonal and structural clarity.
His diligent exposition of the score is like a spacious discourse that at times leaves the music bereft of emotional
hell. Momentum also suffers: he is too studied at some tempos (C-sharp minor Prelude), too languid at others (E
minor, F-sharp minor Fugues).
Keith Jarrett's 1991 recording brought a fresh perspective from a pianist with no allegiance to either the romantic
or modernist traits of the classical tradition. Not that his jazz roots are very evident here, except perhaps in the
rhythmic urgency he imparts. This is a mixed blessing: beneficial in, say, his vivacious account of the B major
Prelude and Fugue, while leaving many others sounding rushed. (This is the fastest version of the complete cycle
after Woodward. For an experienced improviser, Jarrett also show a curious reluctance to characterize the music.
While his pianism is always sparkling and crisp, the lack of a more probing sense of engagement means much of
the cycle come over as empty and anonymous.
Caroline Weichert, daughter and ex¬ student of distinguished German pianist Gregor Weichert, offers a
consistently thoughtful, clearly articulated perusal of Op. 87: I particularly like the ominous air she gives the E
major Prelude and her dancing dispatch of it partner fugue. In her liner note he describes Shostakovich' music as
a 'trompe-l'oeil’, concealing 'a volcano of rage and de pair beneath a veneer of innocence and convention’. It's a
shame her rather unruffled playing barely hints at these hidden drama: indeed, her too-smooth take on ~u h
turbulent piece as the G-sharp minor and D-flat major Fugue is the set's most serious drawback.
The remaining recording from the 1990s were made by a trio of Soviet émigrés, each with a very different
approach. The first thing to say about Boris Petrushansky is that, at 185 minutes, his is the longest cycle on disc
(an hour longer than the Woodward. The second thing is that his set is more varied and accessible than it length
His slow tempos, with their carefully placed accents, often have a canny purpose and reveal new aspects of the
music, such as the melting tenderness he coaxes from a song-like C-sharp minor Fugue and his beautifully
sustained unfolding of the E-flat minor Prelude and Fugue. Yet the excessive rubato can be problematic: the
elegant, valedictory F major Prelude is pulled apart by his accentuated deliberation.
If Petrushansky divided opinion. Vladimir Ashkenazy's set polarised it further: admirer praised his immaculate
classical technique; critics found his playing here dispassionate and monochrome. Both sides have a point: his
exquisite poise often serves the music well, as in his delicate take on the E major Prelude; yet his reserve inhibits
him in such carefree moments as the A major Fugue and. more crucially, prevent him from plumbing the deeper
feelings others have found elsewhere.
The last of this Russian trio, Konstantin Scherbakov, is a brighter, bolder, brasher alternative to the others. His
playing in the earlier Preludes and Fugues is lively and attractive: later results are more variable - a fun B-flat
major pairing, an anodyne F minor - and the closing stages of the cycle arc spoilt by some tripping tempos, while
more vagaries of tempo scupper the c1imactic D minor fugue.
After a hiatus at the beginning of the millennium, the last five years have brought a flurry of new versions. The
first three need not detain us long. Kori Bond's set is burdened by a rhythmic earnestness that grounds the more
speedy, extrovert pieces. Her serious mien pay dividend in quietly compelling accounts of the B-flat minor and C
minor pair, and he give the D minor Prelude a nicely weighted gravitas, but then fails to build momentum in the
The notes to Muzla Rubackyte’s recording liken the D minor Fugue to 'a cathedral rising to the heavens'; alas, the
image this performance evokes is closer to a cathedral stalling in mid-air and crashing in a haze of pedal! A
resonant acoustic Rubackyte’s fluid way with phrases (they lose shape and definition, like writing in water), her
hurried tempo and a tendency to prettify add up to a set with few redeeming qualities.
The graceful air to David Jalbert's C major Prelude is very welcoming, and his fluency and clarity make him a
charming guide to miniature gem like the A minor Prelude and the A major Fugue. Yet other pieces feel too
contained and, as the cycle proceeds, his unassuming approach feels underpowered: the crucial D-flat major and
D minor Fugues are all surface speed, no hidden menace. By the end, the overall impression is or a set that is too
neat and airbrushed: Shostakovich-lite.
In contrast, Jenny Lin's C major Prelude is off-putting, marred by snapped-off phrases, is and her A major Fugue
has a strange, hard-edged formality. But hers is a cycle that grow in stature as it rises to the challenge is of the
more ambitious Preludes and Fugues. Her assurance and power reap rich rewards too, notably in the imposing E-
flat minor Prelude and a properly c1imatic D minor Fugue, but also generally in a set that, after a faltering start,
prove more responsive than most to the music's panorama of colour, drama and passion.
More responsive than most, but not all. Because Alexander Melnikov's 2008-09 cycle is a towering achievement.
He grabs your attention with the hushed intensity of his C major Prelude and never lets go; he sustains taut inner
dialogues to me mesmerising effect (the F-sharp minor Fugue, the C minor Prelude) and his virtuosity extends
from the controlled frenzy of the D-flat major Fugue to the impossible moto perpertuo brilliance of the B flat
major Prelude. He brings each individual prelude and fugue into vivid focus, and plays due attention to the harsh,
quasi-dissonances of the 'aggravated mode' that Shostakovich devised, stretching the limits of the conventional
tonal language to which Soviet censure had confined him. Melnikov explains this in his booklet essay (and on the
accompanying DVD interview) and applies it in his performance; nowhere more tellingly than in the D minor
Fugue, which he represents a both epic struggle and epic climax. Here, at last, is a vision of Shostakovich's
magnificent work that can stand next to those of Nikolayeva and Richter.
Nikolayeva, Richter and Melnikov are the pianists who allows us to glimpse into the music's history and soul. Who
have the ears to hear its 'secret songs'.
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