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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op.87 (1950/51)
Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano
Recorded 1987, location not specified
Budget price: in UK retail £14-15
REGIS RECORDINGS RRC 3005 [3 CDs: 168:23]


Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental set of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues bears much similarity to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in terms of expression, architecture, mastery of form and emotional impact. There are two primary differences between them. The first is that the Shostakovich music is often either brutal or sarcastic. Secondly Shostakovich progresses his way through the set using the circle of fifths as Chopin did in his Opus 28 Preludes instead of employing the sequence of semi-tones used by Bach.

Shostakovich’s Opus 87 has not received a great many recordings over the decades. Of recent vintage, there is only Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca, Keith Jarrett on ECM, Konstantin Scherbakov on Naxos, and Boris Petrushansky on the Dynamic label. Each of these sets is very rewarding, although Keith Jarrett sometimes appears to have no idea that he’s performing the music of a Russian composer and not music for the local Hotel lounge.

There is another performer of this music on record, and she is Tatiana Nikolayeva. Her intimacy and identification with the work easily overshadows the other artists who have made recordings. Nikolayeva kept encouraging Shostakovich to finish the cycle and was also responsible for its State approval and publication in 1952. Further, she gave the first public performance of Opus 87 and was even rehearsed by Shostakovich.

If memory serves, Nikolayeva has recorded Opus 87 three different times. I have not heard the earliest recording but am very familiar with the 1987 performances as well as the 1990 readings for Hyperion. The 1987 recordings have traditionally been in the hands of BMG/Melodiya with reissues and deletions through the years, but Regis Records has evidently been able to secure a licence for these performances. My hope is that they will remain in circulation for years to come. [While you may be able to find copies of the BMG-Melodiya set, officially it went out of the catalogue two years ago when, it is understood, BMG were told by the owners that the licence had expired. Ed.]

I don’t want to make light of other artists in this repertoire, but Nikolayeva has the inside track. She is the only one who consistently enters and explores the Shostakovich soundworld and his struggles to write the music he wanted to without being sent to the Siberian wasteland. As it stands, this 1987 set only has competition from Nikolayeva’s Hyperion performances. These are the two that I am comparing for the purposes of the review.

Overall, I would have great trouble making a selection between Nikolayeva’s two recordings. The 1987 set has a primitive and brutal strength, while the Hyperion is more cosmopolitan. Concerning sound characteristics, the 1990 sound is stark and a little wet in comparison to the very dry and clinical sound of the 1987 recordings.

There are too many pieces of music to detail, so I’ll just mention a few of the preludes and fugues. The Prelude in E minor is a flat-out masterpiece. Its bleakness and despair is all-encompassing, although the music eventually modulates to the key of A flat major as hope rises to prominence. However, the E minor ends in bitter irony as befits a dictatorship that had its grip on every aspect of human endeavor. Both Nikolayeva versions are exceptional, but I do prefer the 1990 performance for its more intense bleakness.

The Prelude in D major is a delightful piece of child-like wonder. Playful arpeggiated chords contrasted by a consistent bass line project a pristine quality of complete innocence. Again, the two Nikolayeva versions are superb, particularly in the right hand projection. The D major Fugue is also playful but conveys a maturation process that is robust and full of energy. Here the earlier Nikolayeva possesses the greater energy helped significantly by her incisive sequence of repeated stuttering notes.

The 1987 performance of the Prelude in B minor is an absolute triumph. This is very strong music that depicts in my mind a hero who is being subjected to and beaten down by the Soviet system. The piece has an ‘industrial strength’ element that Nikolayeva plays to the hilt, while her most recent effort is a tad sluggish. In the B minor Fugue, our hero has learned humility and wisdom, now being in a much better position to combat oppression. Both Nikolayeva performances extend to over 7 minutes and offer a full-course meal of emotional content and shadings.

The Fugue in B flat minor is a most interesting piece as Shostakovich takes us to a freely floating environment as if gliding through outer space. However, the long coda transfers us to the key of B flat major where a beacon of light shows the way to the security of home. Nikolayeva’s outstanding performance is transcendent in the coda where she gives me the most positive feeling of finding home after the free-fall.

The Prelude and Fugue in E flat major is another highlight for the 1987 set. The Prelude alternates an heroic chorale with a satirical caprice. At the conclusion, the two sections meld into one. Nikolayeva’s most endearing trait here is how well she invests the caprice with an exquisite ‘music-box’ sound. The Fugue is loaded with chromatic inflections and gives me the image of a person attempting to climb out of a hole but always losing ground. Nikolayeva is riveting with her stern demeanor and intricate display of the chromatic elements.

For music depicting humans out of control, the Prelude and Fugue in B flat major is essential listening. In the Prelude, running semiquavers have center stage and keep pestering the bass line. In the Fugue, everyone is emotionally scattered and hyper with no idea of what they are doing. Nikolayeva’s 1987 readings have ambiguity and confusion written all over with a vivid sense of irony. Her 1990 performance of the Prelude is a little too soft-grained for my tastes.

In the Preludes and Fugues in G minor and F major, both Nikolayeva efforts eclipse all alternatives. They are much slower than the competition, and the measured tempos allow them to convey fantastic detail and emotional depth and nuance.

The final series is in D minor, and Shostakovich makes a majestic exit. This series conveys just about every emotion encountered in the previous keys and seems to provide a history of living under the Soviet juggernaut. Again, the Nikolayeva twins have no peers.

I am sure that I can verbally provide just a small percentage of the full measure of Shostakovich’s masterful Opus 87. You must experience it for yourself, and Nikolayeva is the only sure means to reach a significant understanding of Shostakovich’s psychology, astounding architecture, and the outside forces that permeate his music.

The only issue remaining is whether the remastering effort by Paul Arden-Taylor on the Regis set results in better sound than for the Melodiya transfers. Arden-Taylor gives the music a darker and richer tone that appears more appealing initially, but with time one notices a slightly constricted quality; in comparison, the Melodiya sound blossoms. I see little point in buying the Regis set if you already own the Melodiya.

In conclusion, those of you who don’t have a Nikolayeva set of the Shostakovich Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues need to get at least one. I feel that both the music and performer transcend classical music categories, making it a simultaneously uplifting and draining experience for all listeners. Opus 87 is timeless and one of the masterworks of the classical repertoire. In Tatiana Nikolayeva, we have the perfect champion to guide us through Shostakovich’s unique musical labyrinth. Do keep in mind that listening to the set once or twice will reveal only a small fraction its worth. I still hear new ideas and connections after many years of frequent exposure.

Don Satz


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