What has influenced the way you perform this cycle? Was its dedicatee, Tatyana Nikolayeva, a useful starting point?
I’m sorry to say that her very famous [Hyperion] recording is not my favourite among the other complete cycles recorded, though everybody talks about it and I have a lot of respect for her not least because she could play it all by heart but also because she did inspire the whole work! Anyway I find the early Melodia recording much better.
So what is your main objection to her interpretation?
Who am I to criticise her playing? For example I played a couple of the preludes and fugues in Scotland about a year ago, and then there was a critic who said exactly the opposite of what I felt. He felt what I was doing was so messy, and completely not polyphonic, and that what she did was completely clear – which are exactly my main objections about Nikolayeva’s playing! So probably we have to say that it all remains a matter of taste.
Yet especially in France her recording has a legendary status. That said, I would not like my CD to be constantly compared or – God forbid! – positioned against her famous recording. First of all there are many other excellent pianists who have recorded it. Secondly and most importantly – really, there are more than enough things to concentrate on within the music itself.
Was that one reason why you decided to record this cycle?
I was also becoming more and more annoyed by what I felt were a lot of misconceptions about these pieces. There are certain musicologists and people who specialise in 20th-century music who think because this music isn’t ‘avant garde’ or progressive that it’s ‘square’ and primitive.
Clearly you don’t agree. How did you prepare this cycle before the recording?
I’d first played four of the preludes and fugues in, I think, 1997 for a concert in Richter’s Festival in La Grange de Meslay, Tours in France. But I started to learn all the preludes and fugues about three years ago; I would take the music with me in every concert trip.
I was also of course looking at [Bach’s] Well-tempered Clavier, because hearing Tatyana Nikolayeva playing these was meant to have been the inspiration for Shostakovich’s work. I also returned to the polyphonic studies I’d done at school but hadn’t paid enough attention to at the time, and spent time analysing the fugues and seeing how they work.
I then realised that 23 out of Shostakovich’s 24 fugues follow an extremely uniform model – they’re like strict exercises which follow the same structure. My immediate reaction was to think ‘My God, why did he make it so dogmatic?’ I remember two days while I was touring Japan when I thought I was not going to enjoy working on this music after all.
So what changed your mind?
Basically, I have tried to put in all on paper in the accompanying sleeve-notes. At some point I started to understand – or least believed that I understand – some of the processes he was working with while composing.
He composed the entire cycle in just three and a half months, which is incredible. But you sense going through these preludes and fugue this aesthetic power took him over – they become more and more serious Shostakovich pieces. It became very interesting for him to create really different worlds aesthetically and emotionally without ever leaving this extremely rigid model of the fugue; you put some of the fugues next to each other, and it’s absolutely impossible to believe that both of them are following this very rigid, very school-like model. And there, I think, lies the great merits of this music because it works.
Interview by Daniel Jaffé
Audio clip: Shostakovich: Fugue No. 15 in D flat
June 2010 instrumental choice: Alexander Melnikov performs Shostakovich
CD Review: Beethoven: Violin Sonatas performed by Alexander Melnikov and Isabelle Faust
CD Review: Schubert: works for violin and piano, performed by Alexander Melnikov and Isabelle Faust