Shostakovich: 24 Preludes

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: 24 Preludes & Fugues, Op. 87; plus bonus DVD, a film by Christian Leblé
PERFORMER: Alexander Melnikov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902019.20

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Alexander Melnikov claims, both in his booklet notes and in the short film by Christian Leblé that forms the DVD portion of this three-disc set, that Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues have been so closely associated with the classic interpretation of their first exponent, Tatiana Nikolayeva, that other players have been deterred from re-imagining them in different terms.

I suspect that Roger Woodward, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Keith Jarrett, Olli Mustonen, Jenny Lin, among those who have recorded complete cycles, might want to demur. But Melnikov unquestionably gives an impression of freshness and daring, as if he’s discovering the music for the first time.

His tempos tend to be on the fast side, his range of touch from the massive to the feathery light, and every movement is incisively, vividly characterised. None more so than No. 15, whose Prelude Melnikov sees as ‘full of mockery, [relying] on the street music of (largely criminal) post-revolutionary Russia’ and the ‘near-dodecaphonic’ fugue whose contrapuntal technique ‘reminds us of the Second Viennese School’. 

He is surely right that the contrast between the fifteenth Fugue and desolate, neo-baroque then quasi-oriental No. 16 is one of the cardinal mysteries of the cycle. The withdrawn and mystical atmosphere that he creates in Prelude 22 is the obverse to the magnificently granite-like ending
to the culminating Fugue 24. 

Melnikov argues powerfully in his words and his playing that this is a cycle, not a work to be thumbed-through for extracts. Yet it emerges in his account as much less monolithic than usual: Shostakovich uses the severe discipline of the fugue and the miniature forms of the Prelude to create a kaleidoscopic range of musical characters.

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Certainly one’s bound to feel, listening to such superb playing, that this is indeed one of the greatest contrapuntal cycles since Bach. Overall, then, a magnificent achievement. Calum MacDonald