Polyphonic Dialogues
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b.1932)
From Two Polyphonic Pieces (1961): No. 2: Basso Ostinato
From 24 Preludes and Fugues (1964/70): No. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 10, 14, 19
From 25 Polyphonic Preludes (1972): (Polyphonic Notebook) No. 12: Toccatina-Collage
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
From 24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87 (1950/51): No. 2, 4, 5, 7, 12, 15
Joachim Kwetzinsky (piano)
rec. 14-17 April 2009, Sofienberg Church
2L 63 [63:51]

Artificially induced or creatively inspired, this kind of ‘dialogue’ programme can be discovery or disaster, and I am glad to say at the outset that this release falls squarely into the former of the two categories.

Shostakovich and Shchedrin are pictured together in the booklet, and their friendship was one which lasted from Shchedrin’s childhood, when his father acted as Shostakovich’s secretary. Shchedrin heard Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues at their first performance in 1951. The Polyphonic Notebook was the result.

I have previously heard the Polyphonic Notebook in Andrey Chulovsky’s organ transcriptions on a Melodiya disc, an artefact which I seem not to have valued enough to keep. I don’t think they were much fun on organ, and so hearing them on the instrument for which they were intended has been something of a revelation. Fun is perhaps not the right word, but Basso Ostinato is a terrific opener, simultaneously showing us the remarkable piano sound on this disc, the tremendously powerful technique and musicality of Joachim Kwetzinsky, and the fizzing inventiveness of the music on offer.

Shchedrin’s Polyphonic Notebook pieces are an exploration of all manner of compositional techniques, but his language is always one which has a human connection, even when his idiom dares to sail closer to atonality than Shostakovich ever did in his more familiar Preludes and Fugues Op.87. There are plenty of complete recordings of Shostakovich’s marvellous cycle around, so mixing things up like this here is not taking anything away from us which we can’t fill up on elsewhere. I have Ashkenazy’s Decca recording, Keith Jarrett’s ECM set and the recording Tatiana Nikolaeva made for Hyperion, and am unlikely ever to make up my mind which I like best. We’re not comparing cycles here however, but with some references in one’s back pocket it is clear that Norwegian pianist Kwetzinsky very much has the measure of these pieces. His approach is less lyrical than some, but his direct and sometimes uncompromising approach suits the Russian ‘soul’ of the music very well. Take the gorgeous Fugue No.4 in E minor, here on track four. The building blocks of the fugue are set in place with a sensitive touch, with a nice balance between the linear and the vertical, perhaps with a little more emphasis on the harmonic progression than on the line of the counterpoint. This is one of the fugues which progresses to remarkable heights and Kwetzinsky doesn’t go in for histrionic waves of rubato, giving extra weight to significant moments, but maintaining a good momentum and a feel for what has been, and what is yet to come.

I’m not sure, but I somehow get the feeling that Kwetzinsky has more tenderness and depth of sympathy for Shchedrin’s pieces. There are some moments where you feel his reading of the elder master’s works is more perfunctory, less filled with that sense of discovery which can be so stunningly vibrant elsewhere. In any case, it is certainly not so that Shostakovich’s genius is set to tower above the younger composer’s work; they come across very much as equals. Shchedrin’s idiom is often of a more angular kind, at times more literally virtuosic and exciting, but with a bright-eyed openness to fascinating influences and a clear joy in the potential which the fugue model can create for the brilliant composer. Just listen to the Prelude and Fugue No.7 in A major, tracks 12-13. The 31 second prelude might almost be a Conlon Nancarrow invention, with a walking bass and wild double-tempo right hand. The fugue’s theme is a remarkable invention in its own right, being repeated notes in an atonal sequence which generate some fascinating rhythmic connections later on. This connects with Shostakovich’s own Fugue No.5 in D major but with an entirely different approach. The close to Shchedrin’s fugue also points towards a willingness to display wit and humour, which is something Shostakovich’s more tortured soul more seldom allowed to break through.

Shostakovich is not all doom and gloom however, and this shines through in the A major Fugue No.7, which Kwetzinsky manages to give some Grieg-like qualities. This luminous piece is followed immediately by one of Shchedrin’s more extreme examples, the Prelude and Fugue No.8 in F sharp minor, which opens with a pointillist progression of elusive but inevitable logic, and a fugue which wants to elbow its way into an espionage film score by way of Debussy. A whiff of jazz also appears in the Prelude No.10 in C sharp minor, which has a delightfully slinky bass over which the right hand is given an improvisatory line with which to wave patterns in the air. Setting Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue No.15 against Shchedrin’s Prelude and Fugue No.14 is a master stroke, take my word for it. The programme ends with Shchedrin’s Toccatina-collage which throws in its own homage to the real father of fugue, J.S. Bach.

This is a remarkable disc in many ways. Even the cover picture has hidden depths. Squint a little and turn your head sideways to the right: a windswept Darth Vader maybe? This recording has certainly given me an incentive to seek out a good piano recording of the entire Polyphonic Notebook, and an even higher regard for Rodion Shchedrin, a composer whose reputation is now thankfully expanding beyond his popular Carmen Suite. The juxtaposition of these two composers makes for a fascinating listen, and this is a disc which has a very great deal to offer in its own right, creating something unique by combining mutually respecting forces which stand on comparable foundations. 2L’s SACD piano sound is terrific and almost larger than life, certainly something of demonstration quality to take with you when buying new speakers. Joachim Kwetzinsky is an excellent pianist and a name we will no doubt be hearing much more from in the future.

Dominy Clements

A fascinating and effective juxtaposition.