Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Twenty Four Preludes op.34 (1932/1933) [30:49]
Piano Quintet in A minor op.57 (1940) [33:16]
David Kadouch (piano)
Quatuor Ardeo (Carole Petitdemange, Olivia Hughes (violins), Caroline Donin (viola), Joëlle Martinez (cello))
rec. The Riems Grand Théâtre July 2008. DDD.
TRANSART TR162 [64:5]

Not to be confused with the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87 which were written nearly twenty years later, in 1950 and 1951, but which follow exactly the same tonal scheme, these 24 Preludes are small, character pieces, which make up a pleasing suite ranging through a variety of styles, from Chopin to children’s pieces, with various marches, nocturnes and scherzi. They vary in duration from just over 30 seconds to a little over two minutes and the best known are probably number 14, which Stokowski orchestrated and recorded seven times (from 1935 to 1976), and number 15 which was used as the title music for the BBC TV sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. There’s nothing profound here, although a couple of the pieces do have pretensions to depth, but the playing time won’t allow for deep thought. Also, that’s not why these pieces exist. David Kadouch plays them very well, has a strong personality, and his vision makes the whole sequence sound like a single work rather than a collection of miniatures.

Many would claim Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet to be his greatest chamber work, and there are plenty of reasons for that assumption. It’s a big, serious, work, laid out on a broad canvas, starting with a very severe Prelude and Fugue - this latter receiving a particularly hair-raising performance in its existential loneliness, sans vibrato, sans expression, sans everything. Absolutely brilliant. This is well balanced by the scherzo which is a brighter, less angstvoll, version of the demonic scherzo in the soon to be written 2nd Piano Trio of 1944. Man’s inherent isolation returns in the fourth movement, Intermezzo, where even the climax has a feeling of emptiness about it. The finale has an almost childlike feel to it, and these performers find exactly the right tone of voice for this music, chaste and pure, relaxed and friendly. Indeed, they all get it right throughout this performance.

I thoroughly enjoyed this disk for its wonderful and insightful music-making, the intensity the performers brought to their performances and the remarkable way in which they never put a foot wrong in their interpretations. These derive from a live concert, not that you’d know that if it weren’t for the applause at the end of each work. It was recorded at the Flâneries Musicales d’ été de Riems and one can feel the electricity of the live performance in every bar. I heartily welcome this disk for it contains playing and interpretations of the very highest order. It is most satisfying, to someone like me who spends a fair amount of time listening to recorded music, to encounter such exhilarating performances. My only complaint is that the recording, which is bright and clear, is very close and it took me a few minutes to find exactly the right volume setting for perfect listening.

I would be failing in my duty if I did not mention that Shostakovich wrote the Quintet for himself to play with the Beethoven Quartet and their 1949 recording of the work is available, coupled with their 1945 recording of the 2nd Piano Trio, and Shostakovich’s 1945 and 1946 recordings of two of the 24 Preludes, the Fantastic Dances, op.5 and A Child’s Exercise Book, op.69 (Doremi Records 7787). In terms of authority this new recording cannot outclass the composer-led recordings, but it runs them a very close second.

Bob Briggs

Exhilarating performances.