On January 26, pianist Alexander Melnikov returned to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for Part Deux (or should we say Part Dva?) of his complete performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, with numbers 13-24. For more general remarks about the background of the piece, refer to our review last week, here. For present purposes, what is important to know is that this cycle is an organic whole, and while there is little shared musical material from start to finish (though what there is proves quite important), there are several other unifying factors. One is that individual numbers in the second half of the series sometimes have gestural relationships to numbers in the first half. For example, No. 13 is gentle like No. 1; No. 14 is a kind of reversal of No. 8, with an anguished prelude and a whimsically upbeat fugue; No. 17 is similar in mood to No. 7, and so on. Another more general link is that Shostakovich tends to undermine the tonalities of his major-mode numbers, whether by turning them modal as in fugue 1, or by contorting them chromatically as in fugue 19. Finally, there is the gradual introduction of elements that will be brought to fruition in the finale: the V-I progression (upward by a fourth) most audible in the prelude 21 (which also contains passagework reminiscent of prelude no. 2) and the upward fourths of the fugue in No. 21, and then the melody reliant on descending minor seconds in prelude 22, prefiguring the second subject of the final fugue.
We thought Melnikov’s performance of this final dozen numbers excelled in bringing out these cyclic details, while providing wonderful individual attention to each component number. The high points of this program for us were his masterfully unhinged reading of fugue 15, following his brisk but suitably emphatic rendition of its prelude. Contrary to the clueless program note (to identify its author would be an act of cruelty) this is not “playful but nervous” music (nor is it in D major, it’s D flat), it’s the depiction of a brutal, repressive bureaucracy and the only sane response to it, which is madness—a Soviet “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” From that virtuosic point on (the fugue is so rhythmically complex that one editor recommended that pianists rebar it), Melnikov went from strength to strength, from the floating elegance, suggesting a cross between the Goldberg Variations and Moorish Spain, of both parts of No. 17; the slyboots subversions of prelude 19; the somber and monumental nobility of No. 20; the out-of-kilter simplicity of prelude 23 (evoking the sound world of the op. 34 preludes); and at last to the staggering symphonic heights of No. 24. In the final fugue (the only one, we think, based on a tune elaborated in its prelude), we particularly noticed the steady, determined long-range dynamic buildup that managed to stay in the listener’s consciousness despite localized diversions. This was playing of not only technical excellence but also high musical intelligence.
Anyone who went into these two recitals not knowing the Shostakovich op. 87 couldn’t help leaving them with admiration for the genius of a composer who dared to confront a towering masterpiece like The Well-Tempered Clavier and respond to it with another epic masterpiece that was both so close to and yet so distant from its inspiration. We have Melnikov to thank for making this point so effectively.