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
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
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
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.