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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87 (1950/51)
Peter Donohoe (piano)
rec. 16-19 February 2014, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD396 [72:05 + 75:68]

Peter Donohoe has been a valued part of our musical furniture for many years now, his highly successful international career launched as Silver Medal winner of the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. This recording of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87 is announced as the first of a new series of Shostakovich releases by Donohoe on Signum Classics, so it would appear there is plenty to look forward to.

Set in the familiar acoustic of the Wyastone Concert Hall, a favourite space for pianists, the recording is actually close enough for the environment not to play as much of a decisive role in the final result as some we’ve heard from this venue. The upper registers are carried along with a certain amount of help from mild resonance, and there is enough air in the sound to make it attractive. To my ears this is a fairly warm balance, designed for expression rather than spectacle. At low volume it might sound a little on the dim side on some systems, but find the ‘sweet spot’ on your dial and it will deliver.

Peter Donohoe’s notes for this release provide useful background, and take a selection of the more significant pieces for some descriptive insights. While there is no shortage of contrast, one of the main impressions one takes from this set is that of thoughtfulness – of interpretations that invite contemplation, even where tempi are bright and a feel of dance is in the air. The fugues are filled with poetry of one kind or another – here profound and melancholy, there sparkling with wit, though always with plenty of intellectual provenance. The preludes might be similarly described, though the sheer variety in character of Shostakovich’s inventions renders any kind of summing up rather unfair. The wildest and most technically demanding of these pieces, such as the intense Fugue No. 15 in D-flat major, are managed by Donohoe with characteristic Úlan. One can sit back and absorb this Op. 87 collection with quiet joy, but it is almost impossible not to become anything less than utterly absorbed from beginning to end.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 have had several successful recordings, but are by no means ubiquitous in the catalogue. Roger Woodward from way back in 1975 on the Celestial Harmonies label (review) opens with a Prelude No. 1 exactly twice as fast as Donohoe’s, showing starkly how widely differing interpretations can work equally well – as of course they can with J.S. Bach, Shostakovich’s original model for these pieces. Woodward is generally swifter and more prickly than Donohoe, though of course we are talking about an entirely different era. It is fascinating to compare and contrast, but in the end one might as well do the same with chalk and cheese, and fans of this work will want both points of view.

I bought Tatiana Nikolayeva’s 1987 set on the Hyperion label when it first came out, and there is another Melodiya recording from the same year that has since appeared on Regis (review). Nikolayeva is closer to Donohoe than Woodward when it comes to timings though it’s daft to generalise – her more resonant Hyperion set being spread over three CDs and coming in around 18 minutes longer than Donohoe overall. It was Nikolayeva’s playing of Bach that set Shostakovich on the path towards his own ’24.’ She encouraged him along the way as the pieces were written, and while her playing is by no means perfect by this time, hobbling at times over wide leaps and other obstacles, this and her other Melodiya recording are worth seeking out, and with their closeness to the composer uniquely valuable in their own right. Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca is a safe bet and a fine and reliable set of performances. I also have a soft spot for Keith Jarrett on ECM which to my ears seems quite idiomatic, Jarrett’s natural sense of timing also adds some interesting insights. Shostakovich recorded sixteen of these Preludes and Fugues himself, and while some of his tempi go beyond sensible there are enough places in which Donohoe is more or less in agreement with the composer’s own playing, for instance in the Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in E minor, in which the timings are very similar indeed.

Among other things about Peter Donohoe’s Opus 87, I do like the sense of shape he gives to the whole, with a real sense of arrival at the final magnificent Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in that most Bachian key of B minor, and some remarkable experiences along the way beforehand. The intensity of that tremolando for instance in Prelude No, 14 pushes all the buttons, and with impeccable musicality and a fine ear for all of Shostakovich’s moods Donohoe never puts a foot wrong – and indeed, tasteful pedalling also deserves a mention. Hesitate not. This is a recording of Shostakovich’s 2 Preludes and Fugues you’ll want to keep close and guard well.

Dominy Clements



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