Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues op.87 (1950/1951)
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. London, May-June 1975. ADD
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 14302-2 [53:53 + 71:51]

Dedication. That is the word that repeatedly springs to mind re-encountering this superb set more than thirty years after the original release. I have to plead guilty to the fact that it had become rather eclipsed – wrongly so – in my mind by the twin factors of the rise of the CD and the appearance of the Gramophone award-winning version on Hyperion from Tatiana Nikolayeva. My copy of the original RCA release on LP languishes somewhere in my attic in all its mid-1970s graphic glory where I doubt I have listened to it in more than twenty years. Such was the critical stir caused by the Hyperion release that this Woodward performance became something of the moon to Nikolayeva’s sun. Undoubtedly they represent strikingly different approaches to this powerful and important work but I feel equally valid.

With Shostakovich, perhaps more than any composer, context plays such an important part of ‘understanding’ his work. The genesis of this work is well-known but worth a brief reprise. Shostakovich was asked to be part of the judging panel at the Leipzig piano competition in 1950 which in part celebrated the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death. The winning pianist was Tatiana Nikolayeva. On returning to Moscow Shostakovich was inspired to write this cycle in an extraordinary creative spurt from October 1950 to March 1951 consulting regularly with the pianist who ultimately gave the first performance. Clearly Bach and the performances given by the remarkable Nikolayeva were direct inspirations but I think there is another deeper creative compulsion at work here. Around 1950 both artistically and for his life Shostakovich was just hanging on. If you look at the list of his opus numbers for this time the works that surround the Op.87 of these Preludes and Fugues are in the main party hack work; Op. 81: Song of the Forests, Op. 82: Music to the film The Fall of Berlin, Op. 83: String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 84: Two Romances on Verses by Lermontov, Op. 85: Music to the film Byelinsky, Op. 86: Four Songs to Words by Dolmatovsky, Op. 87: Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues for piano, Op. 88: Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op. 89: Music to the film The Unforgettable Year 1919, Op. 90: The Sun Shines on Our Motherland. It has been long acknowledged that the medium of the String Quartet was for Shostakovich the sanctuary for many of his most private musical thoughts – that aside this can seen as a pretty barren three years. A case of surviving until better times arrived. In that context perhaps these Preludes should be viewed as a retreat back into the world of ‘pure’ abstract music of which Bach was the acknowledged master. Don’t get me wrong, hearing Woodward does not make me admire or value Nikolayeva any less but the almost detached austerity of Woodward’s approach seems to me now extraordinarily powerful and compelling. The most obvious and indeed simplistic comparison is one of timings; Woodward needs a few minutes over two hours to complete the cycle, Nikolayeva takes an additional forty minutes. For sure Woodward is patently quicker but that is not the abiding difference. Woodward presents this very objectively as absolute music. He is masterful at dissecting out the complex polyphony of Shostakovich’s writing and in doing so he is quite happy to present this music in a bleak almost harsh manner. Cumulatively over the two hour span this makes for a ferociously demanding listen. To the point where I would say that in its intensity and resolutely pursued vision this is a set that makes considerable demands on the listener. But surely that is how it should be. Shostakovich, at his finest is not a comfortable composer and his appeal for listeners is his extraordinary ability to have wrested art of power and truth and indeed beauty from a moral abyss. Another side benefit of listening to this work again is how it reinforces my opinion about just what a technically brilliant composer Shostakovich was. His denigrators will point all too eagerly at the film scores and populist work and even the symphonies as being crude and ‘obvious’. This cycle is a triumph of economy of utterance allied to compositional virtuosity.

Woodward has a steely technique fully capable of overcoming the many technical hurdles Shostakovich places in his way and at the tempi he chooses many of the faster passages are giddily exciting. But I particularly admire the unmannered purity, the unadorned simplicity free of manner or artifice that he brings to the ‘plainer’ music – the 20th Fugue in C minor [CD2 track 8] is a beautiful example of this – Woodward’s playing is all poise and calmly measured grace. And yet here is the paradox, it is impossible not to feel that there is a sea-tide of emotion boiling away behind the calm façade of this mammoth work and again Woodward is superb at momentarily pulling aside the curtain of reserve to reveal what lies behind. There are too many profound delights to be had in this set to point to any one passage in preference to another. Likewise, to chose between Woodward or Nikolayeva – or indeed the other great players who have recorded the entire cycle – would be irrelevant and a disservice. Surely one of the defining characteristics of a great work of art in any genre is its ability to be recreated or reinterpreted in widely differing ways. For the moment I would have to say that I find Woodward’s approach chimes most closely and most often with what I perceive the truth that lies behind the notes to be.

Aside from the music-making pleasures this set affords I would seriously commend collectors to read the liner-notes that Woodward has supplied. This extends far beyond the standard remit of liner notes and expands on the history of the work as well as its place in the narrative of Woodward’s own performing life. It’s a personal, involving, interesting and convincing exposition of Woodward’s approach to the work and helps to go a long way to clarify why Woodward made the musical choices he did. Indeed the presentation of the whole set by Celestial Harmonies is to be commended right down to the aptly austere cover with Shostakovich’s DSCH monogram picked out in a Bach-like Gothic font. My single less than positive observation is that the piano as recorded is not as rich or euphonious as one might have expected. Woodward highlights in the notes what a fine instrument – a Bösendorfer Imperial – he used. As reproduced I felt there is a touch of the clangorous at the highest dynamics and the bass was not as rich as one might expect. However, the benefit of this is that the many less heavily scored polyphonic passages come through with a crystalline clarity which shows off Woodward’s superb articulation and beautifully even touch to great effect.

“A warm welcome back…” is a reviewer’s platitude all too often applied and one I am sure I have been guilty of using. But in this instance it really is a pleasure to rediscover in all its grandeur one of the peaks of the 20th Century piano repertoire in a performance of such power and insight.

Nick Barnard

A pleasure to rediscover in all its grandeur one of the peaks of the 20th Century piano repertoire in a performance of such power and insight.

see also review by Dominy Clements