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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op.87 (1950-51)
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, April 2015, Meany Theater, Seattle. DDD
ROMÉO RECORDS 7315-16 [63:34 + 78:01]

Shostakovich wrote some important piano music, but perhaps his most significant work for solo piano was the Op 87 set of Preludes and Fugues. The spur to composition came in 1950, the year of the bicentenary of Bach’s death. In that year Shostakovich went to Leipzig to be a member of the jury at the first Bach International Piano Competition. I think I’m right in saying that during his visit he also took part in a performance of Bach’s Concerto for Three Keyboards, BWV 1063. Craig Sheppard reminds us in his booklet notes that Shostakovich was particularly impressed by hearing Tatiana Nikolayeva playing Das wohltemperierte Klavier in Leipzig and while I don’t believe he wrote Op 87 expressly for her, she was to become one of the work’s most notable interpreters. She recorded the work at least twice (review).

Back home in the Soviet Union after his trip to Leipzig, Shostakovich set to work and the complete set of preludes and fugues was composed between 25 September 1950 and 25 February 1951. The notes tell us that he organised the pieces in the circle of fifths rather than chromatically as Bach had done. Though he may not have followed Bach’s example in that respect, quite a number of the individual pieces within Op 87 display a pronounced Bachian influence, albeit refracted through Shostakovich’s own style.

In fact, although I referred to the composer’s style, what is striking when one listens to these pieces as a sequence, is how varied they are. So, for instance, the F sharp minor prelude has Shostakovich’s trademark perkiness, while later the B flat minor prelude is melancholic, while the fugue that follows is often haunting. The G sharp minor prelude is an imposing passacaglia, while the succeeding fugue is energetically angular for much of its duration.

The spirit of Bach hovers over much of the set. Shostakovich starts with a Sarabande (prelude in C major) and Craig Sheppard’s thoughtful performance impresses. He brings clarity and self-possession to the fugue that follows. I think he’s right to say in his notes that the E minor prelude is similar to an organ prelude. His playing here is intense, as it is in the following fugue, much of which is slow and pensive. The light, dexterous fugue in E major is very Bachian, both in concept and performance, and the extended, Bachian fugue in B major is unfolded with admirable patience and structural sense by Sheppard.

The D flat major prelude is a vigorous, dancing piece, superbly articulated by Sheppard. In my notes I scribbled that the opening figure, which returns several times, reminded me of We wish you a merry Christmas. I then read in Sheppard’s notes that the piece was finished on 30 December: the similarity to an English Christmas carol must be coincidental - mustn’t it?

I’ve commented only on a few individual pieces. However, I can assure readers that Craig Sheppard’s account of every constituent part of Op 87 is stimulating, thoroughly convincing and, in the best sense of the word, entertaining. He brings out the humour that‘s a frequent feature of the music – in the aftorementioned D flat major prelude, for example, or in the perky F sharp minor prelude. He’s just as successful in the many serious parts of the set, such as the complex web of voices in the B minor fugue or the mysterious, dark-hued C minor prelude. Clarity is a consistent virtue of his playing, so he’s ideally equipped to bring out the transparency of Shostakovich’s writing in the F minor fugue, and he’s equally convicing in his sparkling account of the bouyant A major fugue. It’s perfectly acceptable to perform or listen to parts of Op 87, but if you listen to Craig Sheppard’s performance from start to finish I think you’ll feel, as I did, that you’re being taken on a journey of exploration.

I’ve heard Craig Sheppard in recorded performances of Bach (review ~ review), Schubert (review), Debussy (review ~ review) and, above all, in his highly distinguished Beethoven sonata cycle (review). I’ve always admred not just his great technical accomplishment, but also the evident deep thought that goes into his performances. Both of those traits are very much in evidence in this set, too. Sheppard seems to get right under the skin of the music and you can tell from the notes that he’s written to accompany the discs the extent to which he’s pondered the music. His notes, like his playing, are full of insights. He suggests scenarios or characterisations for a good number of the pieces. You may not always concur with the extra-musical images that he proposes, but if nothing else he gets you thinking about the music. I love, for example, his idea that the E flat minor fugue suggests that three monks are dancing gently, almost light-heartedly.

Like all Craig Sheppard’s recordings for Roméo this set is taken from live performances at the Meany Theater, Seattle, in this case from two concerts. The Steinway, on which he plays, is recorded fairly closely but by no means too closely. The audience is conspicuously silent except for the vociferous applause, quickly faded, at the end of the concluding D minor Fugue.

This is a rewarding and very fine set which I enjoyed very much.

John Quinn

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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