Shostakovich’s ‘24 Preludes and Fugues’ may be seldom performed, but they are one of the miracles of twentieth-century pianism, and their genesis was suitably strange.
The composer had been steeped in Bach’s preludes and fugues as a boy, but then lost touch with them for decades. Only in middle age, when pressed into service as a juror for a competition marking Bach’s anniversary, did he ‘rediscover’ them, and, inspired by the brilliance of the winner – the young Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolaeva – he was moved to compose 24 preludes and fugues of his own. He wrote them at a rate of one every three days, played them for the Soviet composers’ union and had them predictably savaged, but insisted on going on playing them to any who would listen, and to some (in the Soviet provinces) who would rather have not.
The Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov was induced to record this many-faceted work by sheer frustration at what he considers the ‘messiness’ of the recording which Nikolaeva made towards the end of her life, and he has just won a ‘BBC Music Magazine’ award for his achievement. Accepting his award, he said he had no wish to enter ‘this on-going stupid discussion – was Shostakovich a dissident or a communist’: it’s a shame the author of the Wigmore’s clumsily-written programme essay didn’t speak to him, before doing just that.
Melnikov wants the music to be considered for itself, and his performance was revelatory. One sensed Shostakovich’s imagination running sweetly along, day after day, with the echoes he inserted of Bach acting as springboards for his own unfettered flights. Each piece came vividly characterised with its inherent drama; the allusions to Prokofiev’s playfulness, Stravinsky in neo-classical mode, and Bartok’s peasant dances were beautifully integrated into the flow. Melnikov has exactly the right artistry for all this: a lucid, pliant touch, and a huge range of colours. When he’d delivered the final sunlight-suffused fugue, and taken his applause, he bade us farewell with a Scriabin prelude played with gossamer delicacy.
This recital had begun with a sensational account of Schubert’s virtuosic ‘Wanderer’ fantasy, where velvet-pawed subtlety replaced the usual cannon-fire; Brahms’s late ‘7 Fantasien’, superbly realised, completed the programme.