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 Recording of the Week  Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues from Melnikov

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich went to Leipzig in 1950 for a music festival marking the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. In addition to enjoying a lot of Bach’s music, he was also on the judging panel for the first International Bach Competition. It was in this competition that he first came into contact with the remarkable Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva (then aged 26 and virtually unknown). One of the requirements of the competition was that each competitor would play one of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. Nikolayeva had come prepared to play all of them so asked the jury which one they’d like to hear! She won the first prize, but more importantly started a lifelong friendship with Shostakovich.

Alexander Melnikov
Alexander Melnikov

Inspired by the music of Bach, and also the playing of his new young pianist friend, Shostakovich returned to Moscow and set about the composition of his own 24 Preludes and Fugues. He completed them at great speed - taking just three and a half months to write about two and half hours music - and every time he completed one he would invite Nikolayeva (who also lived in Moscow) round in order to play it to her. On completion the cycle was dedicated to Nikolayeva and she gave the first public performance in 1952. She went on to make three recordings of the work, and it is therefore not surprising that her name has become almost synonymous with it.

There have however been other notable recordings – not least from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Keith Jarrett. But over the last few weeks I’ve been enjoying a new recording from the outstanding Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov. It is on 3 CDs and the reverse side of the third disc features a short DVD film of Melnikov talking about and demonstrating some of his thoughts on the work. He also writes a very detailed and illuminating booklet note which goes further into the background of the Preludes and Fugues and also the perception of the work today.

The cycle as a whole contains a huge range of emotions and styles and therefore demands a considerable technical and musical armoury from the performer. Melnikov demonstrates this throughout – weight and solemnity, mysterious and atmospheric, fast and furious, light and brilliant - all easily within his range. But the really impressive thing about it is that it all sounds so natural and fresh. He is not scared of trying to get to the heart of the music and demonstrates throughout his complete love and devotion to it. The recorded sound is excellent, in a rich and full acoustic, but never to the detriment of detail.

All in all a superb achievement, and thoroughly recommended both to those familiar with the Preludes and Fugues and to those new to them (where the background you get from the DVD and booklet is hugely valuable). I’ve put a short excerpt from the DVD on the website to give you an idea.