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A Concert in Paris – Preludes and Fugues
Vestard Shimkus (piano)
rec. live, April 2019, Eglise Évangélique Saint-Marcel, Paris
ARTALINNA ATL-A023 [58:43]

The festival “Les nuits oxygene” was founded by Pierre-Yves Lascar in 2014 “in order to give some of the more singular musicians of the young generation”. Pianists such as Ran Jia, Severin von Eckardstein and Shai Wosner have performed there and the performer featured in this review, Latvian composer/pianist Vestard Shimkus, has been invited to perform at each festival. Shimkus was a piano student of Daniel Pollack and Dmitri Bashkirov amongst others and studied composition for five years with Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946); indeed, his appearance at the 2nd festival included a performance Vasks' The Seasons, a work which he recorded for the Wergo label (WER 67342 Review). For his 2019 recital, he chose a contrasting collection of Preludes and fugues and that is what we hear here.

The collection of Preludes that opens the recital is actually without fugues; Chopin's stand-alone Prelude op.45 has an almost improvisatory feel and this only heightened by Shimkus' passionate performance, with the phrases of the accompanying figures pressing forward to the melody line, dramatically hushed dynamics in the middle section and an impressionistically pedalled cadenza. The brief op.74 set by Skriabin is given a volatile almost timeless performance, in which Shimkus seems to move with dramatic impulse, occasionally leaving the earthbound time signatures behind. The angst of late Skriabin doesn't infect his Debussy, a poised Bruyères and visceral Feux d'artifice. It makes for quite a sharp contrast to follow these works with the complete Preludes (as far as I can tell) of Gershwin. We hear the three familiar Preludes plus two that were originally intended for that set (Melody 17 and Rubato), the Cake-walk Zez Confrey-like Novelette in Fourths and the very short fragment. This is indeed a fragment, just a few bars that are identical to the opening bars of his Piano Concerto's finale. The two preludes which failed to make it into the familiar set are attractive pieces, especially the vaguely blues rubato with its rising chromaticism but I found that, considering the wealth of melodies that came from the pen of Gershwin, his Melody 17 is not distinctive or memorable enough. It meanders as if it was a written down improvisation - which it may well have been. In the 3 Preludes, Shimkus is gripping though it is the second of the set, Blue lullaby that impressed me most with his marvellously graded dynamics and voicing – I had to go back to the score at one point because it sounded so fresh and different that I thought he had rewritten parts of it. No, he hadn't, though he does add a couple of very minor touches to the later bars, hardly noticeable and perfectly idiomatic.

Shimkus opens the Preludes and fugues section of the recital with his own Gothic Prelude and Fugue – the North Wind. The booklet gives no indication of the inspiration of this so I am not sure how programmatic this work is meant to be. No simplistic rushing of notes to represent the wind certainly and the slowly evolving parallel intervals of the Prelude seem to represent a bleak landscape, perhaps sculpted by the icy effects of the bitter uncaring cold. I am drawn to the fugue with its deceptively simple melody that is soon wreathed in an unremitting cloak of notes, the clarity of the subject still ringing through, bringing such a strong feeling of desolation and heartbreak, emphasised by the uncertain notes fading into nothingness at the end. It leads perfectly into the stark beauty of Bach's E minor Prelude, ably presented with Shumkus' unruffled touch and perfectly judged contrasts in the accompanying fugue. The Pastorale E major is equally balanced, with a fine clarity in the fugue; Shimkus voices this with great character and I would like to hear more of his Bach. The same strongly characterised playing graces his Shostakovich as well, from the remorseless tremolandi and questioning melody of the E flat minor Prelude to the wickedly barbed edges of the D flat major fugue, brilliantly executed.

This is a fine recital, well planned and with vast contrasts, both in the repertoire and in the playing. The clarity of his Bach and Shostakovich is distinct from his restless and wrought Scriabin and yet he brings this disparate grouping together remarkably well. The playing ranges from larger-than-life to delicate and fragile and convinces on all levels. What stands out for me is this conviction that he really loves playing the piano and communicating that love to his audience. I imagine his recitals are visceral experiences.

Rob Challinor

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Prelude in C sharp minor Op.45 (1841) [4:38]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
5 Preludes Op.74 (1914) [5:28]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes – Book II, L.131 (1912-1913)
No.5 Bruyères [3:24]
No.12 Feux d'artifice [4:09]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Prelude “novelette in fourths” (1919) [2:03]
Prelude “melody no.17” (1925) [2:05]
Prelude “Fragment” (1925) [0:20)
Prelude “rubato” (1923) [1:06]
3 Preludes (1927) [6:31]
Vestard SHIMKUS (b.1984)
North Wind. The Gothic Prelude and Fugue (2004) [7:19]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 BWV.846-869 (1722)
Prelude and fugue no.8 [7:27]
Prelude and fugue no.9 [2:20]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and fugues Op.87 (1950-51)
Prelude and fugue no.14 [7:25]
Prelude and fugue no.15 [4:28]

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