We wouldn’t have missed Alexander Melnikov’s January 19th recital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for anything: having first obtained a copy of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87 from Patelson’s (of revered memory) nearly 40 years ago, we’ve picked at it ever since. This cycle is, without peradventure of doubt, the greatest extended work of contrapuntal writing for the keyboard since The Well-Tempered Clavier (yes, we know about Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, but this is really superior), which is obviously Shostakovich’s model. Contrary to the bizarre program note by Robert Cummings, this was not Shostakovich’s first venture into extended piano cycles, having penned a delightfully cheeky set of preludes in the 1930s, published as op. 34. As to op. 87, although there are direct parallels and even quotations that link the great Bach cycle to it, to say nothing of the fact that it was written in response to Tatiana Nikolayeva’s Bach performances, the Bach connection of the cycle should not be ridden too hard. The cycle, written in 1950-51, came at one of Shostakovich’s periodic doghouse phases in his endless war of attrition with the Soviet authorities, two years after the notorious Zhdanov Decree, and in that context amounted to a breathtaking act of defiance—what could be more “formalist” than a set of preludes and fugues?
The op. 87 cycle should also be read as an entire work, even though it is not uncommon for excerpts to be played (and even recorded, including eight by the composer). It projects a grand expressive arc from the gentle opening number through the thunderous mini-symphony that concludes it, with all manner of things in between, from comedy to tragedy (even, as in No. 8, in the same piece!), sweetness, acridity, introspection, extroversion, satire and earnestness. It is remarkable to us that all pianists don’t learn it and learn from it, as they do with The 48. Although there are numerous recordings available (the ones in our collection or memory include Nikolayeva, Ashkenazy, Richter, Konstantin Shcherbakov, and Keith Jarrett, of all people), live performances are pretty rare; this was, in fact, the first we’ve heard—January 19 contained numbers 1-12, with the rest to be performed on January 26. Melnikov also recorded the cycle in 2011, to glowing reviews and several awards, including the BBC Music Magazine Award.
Playing from a well-highlighted score, Melnikov got off to a great start, taking the first prelude at a gentle pace, with wonderfully varied dynamic shading and light pedaling, characteristics that informed just about everything he did. The fugue, a compositional tour de force that uses only the white keys and by programming entrances of the theme on each scale degree traverses all the modes, was taken at what my score would indicate to be double the intended speed, though it didn’t come out sounding rushed. He then trumped this in the second prelude, which whizzed by so fast that the single melodic line lost clarity. He did get into a bit of a tangle in the second fugue, but this was the only number in which actual errors were a noticeable distraction. We won’t attempt any great detail on all the individual pieces, but can point to highlights of Melnikov’s well-conceived interpretation: great sprightliness in the G major fugue (which is no. 3: Shostakovich’s cycle, unlike Bach’s, goes through a cycle of fifths sequence, beginning in C major and ending in D minor, with the flipping point between sharps and flats occurring in no. 14 in E-flat minor); sensitively deployed rubato in the D major prelude and a beautifully light touch in its fugue; passionate Rachmaninovian intensity in the B minor prelude, with creepy eloquence in the corresponding fugue; dappled sunshine in the popular No. 7 prelude in A major (a bit more subdued than one is used to hearing, but that’s OK) and bell-like clarity and serenity in its fugue. The previously mentioned no. 8 in F-sharp minor is the emotional centerpiece of the first dozen numbers, with a prelude combining whimsy and anti-apparatchik satire followed by a slow fugue of agonizing beauty and deepest tragedy, which Melnikov served better in the latter than the former; the whispered final major chord of the fugue quivered with suppressed hope. The fugue of no. 9, the only one in two voices (generally, three- and four-voice fugues alternate), is the most Bachian in sound, and Melnikov took it with impressive bounce, deliberately rushing the ending (in parallel octaves) for comic effect. Melnikov painted the prelude of no. 10 with bright colors, not the sort of pianistic effect one finds frequently in Shostakovich but perfectly fitting here, prefacing a fugue of great nobility, brought out with superb pacing. The rubati and pauses Melnikov interpolated into the B major prelude, intended no doubt to enhance the satirical feeling, were perhaps overdone, while the hammered notes and silences of the fugue tune were eventually overwhelmed by the rush of its passagework. Despite these occasional nitpicks, the only time we felt noticeably let down was in the E minor set (no. 4), in which the prelude seemed rushed and the fugue, also more andantino than the prescribed adagio, never rose to the grandeur it should have had. This was the first of two double fugues in the set (the other is the spectacular final one), of a type not usually seen—two independent fugues that are brought together only as a recapitulation. However, we must report that the final E major chord, which spans an octave and a half in one hand, was not arpeggiated—impressive!
One of the difficulties in spreading the 24 numbers of op. 87 over two recitals (or even two CDs—Nikolayeva’s were issued in 3-disc sets) is that no. 12 needs to be played up as a kind of first-act finale. Its prelude is a passacaglia of sorts, although instead of proper variations on top of the eight-bar theme (mostly in heavy left-hand octaves) there is mostly a fluidly evolving descant, whose phrasing often overruns the end of the theme. Melnikov kept the ostinato theme at a stately level of gravitas and let his right hand delicately ply the airy accompaniment. The fugue in 5/4, tempo allegro, is to be played marcatissimo, and Melnikov certainly hammered out the theme. Although it becomes quite complex, the note values in it never get shorter than eighth notes, yet Melnikov felt the need to goose it up to create a greater bravura effect than it really should have, especially considering that it eventually comes down for a soft landing. To serve the dramatic needs of the moment, this was understandable, but as noted it might not be how one would do it if it weren’t positioned as an end-piece. One wonders if instead of taking them in strict sequences, the numbers of the work could be reordered to suit the requirements of the performance event (assuming one weren’t going to perform all of them in one go).
One audience member we spoke with mentioned that she had seen Melnikov perform this work in London, and had bought his recording, and in comparison to those performances this one was rawer. We couldn’t say, of course, but it’s clear that he was pushing the emotive envelope, not a bad thing for a type of work that could be stultifyingly dry if done unimaginatively. We look forward to the next installment, which, for our money, contains three of the greatest numbers in the set, and therefore three of the greatest piano pieces ever written.