Presto interview - Peter Donohoe on Shostakovich

by David Smith. 17th May 2017

The 24 Preludes and Fugues comprising Shostakovich's Op.87 are a fascinating product of the composer's interest in, and desire to pay tribute to, the contrapuntal genius of JS Bach. Spanning all twenty-four chromatic keys, they range in style from pure simplicity to noisy triumph, and are widely regarded as one of Shostakovich's most significant compositions.

I spoke to pianist Peter Donohoe about his new recording of the Preludes and Fugues, and about how he approaches such a varied set of pieces.

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These Preludes and Fugues are almost invariably compared to Bach’s, and it’s known that Shostakovich held the German master in high regard. How far do you think the parallel with the Well-Tempered Clavier holds?

I don't know of any major composer who didn't hold Bach in high regard, and in particular for his polyphony and fugal writing. That Shostakovich was inspired to create this wonderful set of 24 Preludes and Fugues by Tatiana Nikolayeva's performances of Bach makes the parallel inevitable. However, that is not to say that they are in any way unoriginal. Other than the obvious homage to his great predecessor in certain ones - No. 1 in C major and No. 10 in C# minor being the most obvious - they are characteristic Shostakovich at his very greatest.

Other factors may well have included that there had developed in late nineteenth-century Russia a tradition of writing preludes and fugues - e.g. by Glazunov, Tanayev, and many others - perhaps as a subconscious counter to the generally held feeling by German musicologists that Russian composers were intellectually inferior because of their reliance on melodic inspiration rather than architectural logic. This tradition continued into Soviet times, and almost all twentieth-century Soviet composers experienced very disciplined training in this regard.

In any case Shostakovich is known to have loved the challenge of fugal writing, and did so almost as a pastime away from the creation of his massive symphonies, string quartets and other very large-scale works.

I think a similar homage to Bach - also to Handel - is very evident in the later works of Beethoven: think of the last five piano sonatas or the Missa Solemnis, for example. But there is certainly no questioning Beethoven's own voice in these magnificent works.

Your notes suggest a certain weariness with the endless question of how ‘sincere’ Shostakovich’s triumphant finales are or aren’t – particularly the final fugue of his 24 and the thunderous ending of the Fifth Symphony. Do you think we’ve become too distracted by the search for political subtexts in his music?

Yes, although since the end of Soviet times, the use of Shostakovich as a propaganda tool on both sides of the Cold War has obviously lessened. Away from the politics of the time, Shostakovich will of course be increasingly assessed on the greatness of the music in an abstract sense. I don't think we will ever know what he was really thinking or what his intentions were, but my gut feeling is that the enigmas in his music - the ambiguities, the nostalgia, the sarcasm, the apparent horror, the brief visionary moments of bliss, and in particular the 'triumphs' - are all from his inner being. He was undoubtedly a tortured soul, an intensely private person, and a creative musical talent beyond all imagining. The degree to which he would have been different or otherwise had he existed outside the Soviet system is a fascinating and complex question - to which will never know the answer.

They’re a very varied set in terms of their textures and moods – and the demands they place on the player. Do you have a particular favourite (or was there one that you found harder work than the rest)?

From the point of view of the learning process and the pure technical difficulties, Nos. 12 in G# minor and 15 in Db major are pretty extreme. However, as with all difficulties of that nature, they pale into insignificance by the side of the musical difficulties of some of the slower ones, and actually even more the moderate ones. The real challenge is putting them altogether and making logical sense and shape of the whole set; that the final one is so obviously a conclusion to them all makes it logical to regard the 24 as a massive single work - in much the same way as one regards the 24 Rachmaninov Preludes.

As to the question regarding a favorite - one tries not to have one, in that they are all equally significant, but I do admit to a particular love of Nos. 6 in B minor for the beautiful sadness of its polyphony, 7 in A major for its purity and innocence, 12 in G# minor for the majesty of its prelude and the incredible excitement of its fugue - which dies away to an unexpectedly beautiful ending - and 13 in F# major for its quasi-choral magnificence.

There have been several notable recordings of the 24 - how much do you think it’s possible for the individual pianist to put their own stamp on these pieces in terms of interpretation?

A very big subject; I do not believe in self-consciously putting my 'own stamp' on anything that I play. I don't 'interpret' it; I play the music as faithfully to the composer as I can, in the belief - in fact, knowledge - that my own inner being and personality will, in an almost involuntary way, come through. I hope and believe that the great predecessors to my own recording will have done the same, and that their inner beings and personalities being different will have led to a different result - none of us imposing anything on the original creation by Shostakovich, but nevertheless shedding different lights on the music. That is what keeps music alive, and it applies to all the greatest works from all periods. Good performances or recordings must not be set in stone, or music will stagnate - the search for 'the' recording of anything is not productive.

Shostakovich: Preludes & Fugues for piano (24), Op. 87 (complete)

Peter Donohoe's recording of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues was released on Signum last month.

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His complete available discography is listed here.

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