Looking over my shelves, I have two previous recordings of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87 by Dmitri Shostakovich. These were written after Shostakovich was sent to Leipzig in 1950 to serve on the jury of a competition connected with the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. First prize was won by Tatyana Nikolayeva who was prepared to play any of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier preludes and fugues on request. Shostakovich was quite impressed. Between October of that year and February of 1951 he composed a set of preludes and fugues in all the keys. My reference for this is Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, pp. 177 et seq.
Sometimes I think of myself as a "critical traditionalist" or someone who appreciates the enormous contribution the resonance of tradition makes to cultural activities like music. The "critical" part comes in recognizing the possible defects in tradition and the possible benefits deriving from genuinely new creative efforts. So I find the way that Shostakovich approaches harmony and counterpoint under the influence of Bach absolutely fascinating.
The oldest recording I have of these pieces is Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca dating from 1999. There are much earlier clips by Tatyana Nikolayeva and Shostakovich himself of selected individual pieces on YouTube, of course. I have to say that Ashkenazy does not really knock me out. I also have his complete Chopin and my impression of both recordings is that he is a fine technician, but rather a humdrum interpreter. No poetry.
The other recording that I picked up later is by Konstantin Scherbakov on Naxos. It was recorded in 1999 as well. Technically it is both clear and brilliant but it shows a lot of poetic grace as well. Very nice recording.
Igor Levit's recording history is very impressive. His debut two-disc set (he only seems to release recordings in double sets) was of the Beethoven late sonatas, something most pianists reserve for their later years. He followed this with the six Partitas of Bach (another double set) and then a monster set of variations: the Goldbergs by Bach, the Diabelli by Beethoven and The People United Will Never Be Defeated by Rzewski. What next, you might ask? There were a couple of CD releases that I missed somehow and then this: On DSCH, the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues with a third disc devoted to an homage written by the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson in 1960-61 on Shostakovich's musical motto: DSCH. In notes:
The Stevenson piece is titled Passacaglia on DSCH and it is such a mammoth work, nearly an hour and a half long, that I will likely do a separate post on it. Suffice it to say that finding that piece and placing it next to the Shostakovich is the kind of creative programming we expect from Levit.
Now to the Shostakovich. These preludes and fugues demonstrate an astonishing range of creative invention from the calm sarabande of the first prelude in C major, to the Mussorgskian rumblings of the G major prelude, to the cheerful D major fugue, to the French overture style of the B minor prelude, to the A major fugue that sounds like Ravel, to the Hungarian dance-like F# minor prelude, to the very Bachian subject of the E major fugue. And then there are all the pieces that really only sound like Shostakovich: driving fugues, deeply resonant preludes and his trademark grotesquerie.
Now let's look at some examples. Here is the opening of the first prelude in C major:
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I could go on and on, but this post is already a bit of a monster. But I have to mention a couple of the later pieces. The fugue in D flat major is in Shostakovich's semi-psychotic grotesque manner, starting with the subject:
You need a whole page of that to get the idea. What a marvelous and complex subject. And when these richly riotous ornaments are piled up on top of one another all I can think is that it is as if Messiaen and Bach met up high in the alps and wrote a piece together.
Speaking of Messiaen, his piano music, especially the Catalogue d'oiseaux, is one of the great masterworks of 20th century piano music even though its great length and difficulty make it rarely heard. I think I would put these 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich on a similar plane. In a century rich with great piano music by Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Messiaen, I think that this music by Shostakovich, who did not write a great deal of piano music, deserves a place.
And here I am, at the end of this post, and I have not done a trace of what I promised: review Levit's recording of the piece! Well, it is very fine: accurate, expressive and brilliantly executed.
Here is a recording of Shostakovich playing the Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor. The fugue begins around the 3 minute mark.
UPDATE: You can find a pdf of the whole score here: https://kupdf.net/download/shostakovich-preludes-and-fugues-op-87pdf_59829c61dc0d60c03a2bb18b_pdf