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WSJ about op.87

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JULY 11, 2009, 8:38 A.M. ET
From Despair to Delight

Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues plumb a dizzyingly diverse range of emotions


Some musical masterpieces transcend mere euphony to become a matter of life and death. Composed in 1950-51 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87 for piano represented a relief from the Russian composer’s life under the Stalinist yoke.

Conforming to political pressures, Shostakovich produced such officially approved works as the oratorio “Song of the Forests” (1949), which notoriously lauded Stalin as a “great gardener,” and “Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets” for chorus a cappella and children’s choir. Fleeing from such Socialist Realism to his inner life, which was entirely devoted to music, Shostakovich traveled to Leipzig, East Germany, in 1950 for the bicentennial commemorations of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), who had lived and worked in that city. There Shostakovich heard the young virtuoso Tatiana Nikolayeva(1924-1993), a pianist of uncommon elegance and intimacy, play a selection from both books of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” each of which contain preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys.

Returning to Moscow, Shostakovich soon began to sketch out his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, which, apart from some baroque allusions, sound as if they were as much influenced by Mussorgsky, Borodin and Russian folk music as by Bach. This wildly diverse and imaginative work ranges in emotional expression from endless grief to the exuberant jollity of a village carnival. Known to embed numbers, codes and ciphers in his music, Shostakovich was clearly lured more by the number 24 than by the idea of imitating any 18th-century precedent, however majestic. Twenty years before, he had also retreated into “abstract” music with his set of 24 Preludes for solo piano, Opus 34, distantly modeled after Frédéric Chopin.

During Stalin’s reign of terror, many of Shostakovich’s Russian colleagues rejected his 24 Preludes and Fugues as not Socialist enough. Yet the work had its persistent champions—notably Nikolayeva, who premiered the work in Leningrad in December 1952, recorded it repeatedly, and was stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage while playing it in San Francisco in November 1993, dying nine days later. Available recordings of Nikolayeva playing the 24 Preludes and Fugues mostly date from the latter days of her career, including two 1987 performances on Melodiya and Orfeo (excerpts); a 1990 studio version for Hyperion (1992); and a recently released DVD in the Medici Arts Classic Archive series (filmed in late 1992). Sadly, none represent Nikolayeva at her best.

More revealing are records made by Shostakovich himself in the 1950s, two of which are available on CD from EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series. Some excerpts express mortal grief and despair. Others present Shostakovich playing with giddy abandon, missing notes in the service of wild tempos that surpass his own not-negligible keyboard abilities. This range of moods, from exaltation to the slough of despond, is entirely appropriate for the 24 Preludes and Fugues—a kind of expressivity rarely matched by the Russian pianists who recorded excerpts from the work, from the overimposing monumentality of Sviatoslav Richter to the dignified, restrained lyricism of Emil Gilels. Lost to posterity is a recording of an arrangement played by Shostakovich and a gifted composer friend, Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). This four-handed version was intended by Shostakovich to facilitate the performance of the work for those who found the two-handed version unwieldy.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues had to wait a few decades for recordings by Western pianists who plumbed the depths of its essence. This delay might have been avoided had the American pianist William Kapell (1922-1953), who left some memorable excerpts from Shostakovich’s Preludes Opus 34 (available from Sony/BMG) not died prematurely in an airplane crash. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Cypriot pianist-conductor Marios Papadopoulos recorded a lucidly affectionate version of the 24 preludes and fugues, a version still well worth hearing, available on CD from Oxford Philomusica, an ensemble of which Mr. Papadopoulos is music director. And a year later, the American Keith Jarrett’s recording for ECM smoothed out the cycle with a highly palatable cool jazz sensibility.

Setting aside the German pianist Caroline Weichert’s capable, if slightly pinched 1991-92 recording for the French label Accord, and the dishearteningly eccentric Olli Mustonen excerpts for RCA (1997) and Ondine (2002), we have had to wait until today for a wholly exuberant, indisputably triumphant interpretation that fully realizes Shostakovich’s intentions.

Born in Taiwan and raised in Austria, the young pianist Jenny Lin ( currently teaches at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Having already recorded CDs of Russian modernist music by such overlooked composers as Arthur-Vincent Lourié (1892-1966) and Serge Bortkiewicz (1910-1949) for the German label Hänssler, Ms. Lin is perfectly situated to understand the Russian pianistic idiom that Shostakovich transfigured with his genius. Moreover, Ms. Lin’s virtuosity, expressed in works by Liszt and Rachmaninov on her own YouTube channel (, is fully up to the fearsome challenges set by Shostakovich.

There have been other outstanding recent CDs of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, such as those by the nimble-fingered Canadian pianist David Jalbert on Atma Classique, and the lusciously expressive Lithuanian Mûza Rubackyté, albeit less than ideally recorded by Brilliant CD engineers. Yet none captures the dizzying diversity, the range of experience from the moribund to the ecstatic, as does the remarkably fluid and theatrically imaginative Ms. Lin. Even though Shostakovich did not intend his 24 Preludes and Fugues to be heard complete, they are such a delight as presented by Ms. Lin that the listener would be at a loss to do without any one of these miniature masterpieces. Listening to her stunning renditions, a line by Tennyson, one of the few writers to out-gloom Shostakovich at his most moribund, comes to mind to describe this work that finds rebirth in bereavement: “O Death in Life, the days that are no more.”
—Mr. Ivry is author of biographies of Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc.

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  1. Аватар для Daddy
    Большое спасибо за интересную информацию!
  2. Аватар для jevlampij
    Присоединюсь к дорогому Daddy со своим блинским спасибо.
  3. Аватар для Daddy
    Хотя интерпретация политического контекста несколько наивна, как это часто бывает у западных комментаторов.
    Но ведь

    Умом Россию не понять...
  4. Аватар для sementis
    And a year later, the American Keith Jarrett’s recording for ECM smoothed out the cycle with a highly palatable cool jazz sensibility
    так утомляет вечная российская серьезность и трагичность
  5. Аватар для spectrum
    Наверное, всегда будет справедливо, что
    ...we have had to wait until today for a wholly exuberant, indisputably triumphant interpretation that fully realizes Shostakovich’s intentions.
    и каждое новое исполнение будет вызывать интерес.
  6. Аватар для Aybolit
    ...the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87 for piano represented a relief from the Russian composer’s life under the Stalinist yoke...
    Это не просто наивность, это злонамеренная наивность.

    Конечно, где же найти лучшего иллюстратора злодеяний сталинизма посредством музыки Шостаковича, как не на 92й улице Нью-Йорка в лице китайской пианистки 20 лет от роду?
    По-моему, юной леди лучше удаются опусы вот такого рода:



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