1950 was the 200th
anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the commemorative events held that year was an International Piano Competition in Leipzig. Shostakovich was chosen as a jury member to judge the best Bach performance. The Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva (1924-1993) won hands down for her rendition of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier
. Her sublime and outstanding playing inspired Shostakovich to compose his own preludes and fugues, twenty-four in all. They were written in a short space of time between October 1950 and February 1951. The cycle was dedicated to Nikolayeva, who premiered them in Leningrad in December 1952. Boris Mukosey in his booklet notes says of the works that they are ‘the greatest achievement of the 20th
century polyphonic music, a worthy continuation of the tremendous tradition laid down by Johann Sebastian Bach’.
Nikolayeva was to record the Shostakovich cycle three times, the earliest being in the early nineteen-sixties. I couldn’t find any evidence that this reading has ever surfaced on CD, but if others know better I’d be keen to know. The final cycle was recorded for Hyperion in 1990, and I have not been fortunate enough to hear it as yet. The cycle under scrutiny here derives from 1987, and has had several incarnations on CD, most notably with BMG/Melodiya (long since deleted), and on Regis
, under licence, released in 2003. I have read several criticisms of this 1980s traversal: that it is dry and sonically harsh. This is not the case with this new re-mastering by Melodiya, which I find is in ideal sound. My research also threw up a DVD of the pianist performing the complete cycle on Medici Arts, which I would love to see.
There was a close association between pianist and composer, and she witnessed Shostakovich in the act of composition, hearing his own pianistic renditions as they emerged. They collaborated together for the premiere in 1952. She was thus a formative influence on the performing tradition of the opus. Nikolayeva’s approach to the cycle had evolved somewhat since her first LPs in 1962. She wanted to set down her fresh thoughts and insights in a new recording in 1987, incorporating, amongst other things, some tempi modifications.
Conferring a wealth of imaginative insights on each of the Preludes and Fugues, Nikolayeva clearly has an intellectual grasp of these works. Phrasing and dynamics are judiciously chosen. With transparency of articulation, she deftly teases out the polyphonic strands of the fugues. Pedalling is at all times discreet, with no smudging of harmonic shifts. One instinctively feels that she has this music in her blood and is able to penetrate to the core of each piece, encompassing the vast spectrum of mood-changes. She captures the dark and pensive character of the C minor Prelude, with its Fugue emerging from total simplicity. The D minor opens in declamatory style ushering in dramatic intent. Nikolayeva achieves beautiful voicing of chords in the C major, and dexterous filigree in the A minor Prelude. The A major Prelude for me shows, more than any of the others, the Bachian influence.
As I have said, these Melodiya re-masterings bring out the warmth of the playing. The ambience is sympathetic to the listener allowing the detail of the, at times, dense harmonic writing to be discerned with clarity. This recording has certainly won me over.