24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Recorded May & December 2008 and March 2009 in Teldex Studios Berlin
Reviewed by: Christopher Breunig
Reviewed: April 2010
CD No: HARMONIA MUNDI
(3 CDs + DVD)
Duration: 2 hours 32 minutes
The Bach-playing of Tatiana Nikoleyeva was the inspiration in 1950 for Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, when the composer attended the Leipzig Bach Bicentennial Competition, and her two complete recordings (Hyperion 1990 / Melodiya 1987) inevitably are seen as definitive. Nikoleyeva had endeared herself to London audiences late in life and it was characteristic of Ted Perry that he would persuade her to record several programmes for his Hyperion label. Before then, we had a 1964 Philips LP with six from the set somewhat drily presented by Richter and (on EMI) a selection recorded by the composer himself. Roger Woodward’s 1975 RCA complete cycle was short-lived. But today there are good modern digital alternatives with Ashkenazy on Decca and Scherbakov on Naxos – I have not heard Keith Jarrett’s 1994 ECM recording.
Advantageously priced, this Harmonia Mundi set has Preludes & Fugues 1–12 on CD1, but the expansive 24th (11’50”) is isolated on CD 3, the reverse of which comprises an interview DVD with a stubbly Andreas Staier – seemingly on less secure ground than in his fascinating complement to his recent Goldberg Variations for HM, as he fails to elicit strong responses from Alexander Melnikov. At least the 23-minute film briefly allows us to see the pianist playing, and Melnikov does provide a booklet overview of exceptional thoroughness. Commenting on the form as “the least instrumentally oriented and most intellectually laden” he observes that Shostakovich, departing widely from the cerebral Bach template, wrote “orchestrally” or, for instance in Prelude No.2 (a movement he despatches with exuberant alacrity), as if emulating a harpsichord. Thus we can sometimes hear the chilling stillness evoked in the Eleventh Symphony; the furious hammering and continuing ostinato of Prelude No.14 could well be that of political prisoners; whilst one wonders, listening to the companion Fugue, whether we are intended to ‘hear’ the counterpoint of the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 110 Piano Sonata or whether this is something subliminal.
The most interesting music lies in what Bach would have seen as ‘Book II’: the sense of apprehension in Prelude No.20; the Mussorgskian ‘Promenades’ in Prelude No.19; a manic clamour in the four-part Fugue No.15. Melnikov rises to these challenges with great sensitivity. Perhaps his very opening Prelude is over-elaborated – Scherbakov found a certain pathos here – but there’s a palpable tension rising over the span of the first CD. Melnikov clearly sees the cycle as cumulative, although it’s a lot for the listener to take-in on one sitting!
The icing on the cake would have been a slightly drier acoustic; however, the sound is always clean, and pretty realistic in its immediacy.