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Shostakovich, Bach: Jenny Lin (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 27.2.2011 (HS)

Intellectually, it seems like a natural, mixing Shostakovich's preludes and fugues with the ones that inspired him to write them, those of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier. The challenge, aside from playing some fairly difficult pages of counterpoint on the piano, is to find a way to make Shostakovich's 20th-century harmonic and rhythmic approach coexist comfortably with Bach's 18th-century expression of pure counterpoint. A few pianists have attempted to pull it off. On Sunday Jenny Lin, something of a contemporary music specialist, found her own way.

Born in Taiwan, educated in Austria, now a resident of New York, Lin possesses the technique to play the music of both composers with ease. Having recorded all of the Shostakovich preludes and fugues on a 2009 CD, she also has them in her fingers and in her mind. The program reflected this, arranging 10 of Shostakovich's preludes and fugues and five of Bach's into sets of three, with the Bach in the middle sometimes relating to the others in the set by key, sometimes by temperament, sometimes by musical structure.

In The Well-Tempered Klavier, Bach explored the differences in sound and emotional impact from playing in different key signatures on an instrument tuned to a tempered scale. For each key, he wrote a prelude and fugue, and given what musicologists tell us, and our ears perceive, it's not surprising that the C major prelude consists of sunny arpeggios moving diatonically. However, the prelude in C-sharp minor, which relies on so many black keys, gets considerably more complex and chromatic in harmony.

Lin began her program Sunday on the stage of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a group in C major and A minor. The Russian composer's approach to No. 1 in C major is free and easygoing, with only the occasional "wrong" chord to remind us we are listening to 20th-century music. Following Bach's No. 1 in C major and its familiar arpeggios she gave us Shostakovich's No. 2 in A minor, the prelude overlapping its arpeggios to create more tension until it comes to an abrupt end.

Lin gave this music a clear reading. She seemed intent on putting the emphasis on the notes, rather than on any interpretive glosses, perhaps as a way to make them fit together better. She aimed for cohesion instead of illuminating the enormous differences between the two composers. As a result, throughout the afternoon, Bach lost some of his nobility, some of that music-of-the-spheres inevitability. And Shostakovich softened his sardonic edge, the sarcasm and nasty wit smoothed over to be more like Bach.

This seemed to be intentional on Lin's part. Her recording of the 24 Shostakovich preludes and fugues is almost giddy in its outright emotionalism. This time she focused most successfully on the lyric beauty of the slower sections.

Despite this push-pull, Lin managed to make a strong case for the underlying impulse that drove both composers to write these preludes and fugues. In the second set, for example, she made the piano sing in the prelude of Shostakovich's No. 5 in D major and dance in the repeated notes of the fugue. She followed by bringing a wistful quality to the aria-like prelude of Bach's No. 10 in E minor. Shostakovich's No. 9 in E major completed the set with relatively simple two-part fugue.

To finish the first half, the mood started off lyrical in Shostakovich's No. 7 in A major, the companion fugue based on a sort of horn-call tune. Bach's slow, achingly beautiful No. 4 in C-sharp minor related to the Shostakovich No. 15 in D-flat major only enharmonically. The prelude's snarky waltz with its repeated motive that resembles "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" moves into one of the most chromatic of the fugues. It was here that Lin's relatively non-confrontational approach made me miss the rhythmic jags that make Shostakovich's music so much what it is.

Lin seemed intent on making the second half a speedier mirror image of the laid-back first half. The first set, highly chromatic, involved many florid passages in Shostakovich's No. 16 in B-flat minor and No. 19 E-flat minor around Bach's No. 12 in F minor. She was right at home in this music, painting the colors vividly.

However, she saved the best for last: a set that started with Shostakovich's No. 21 in B-flat major. She made the Bach No. 5 in D major dance with some giddiness before diving into the big double fugue of Shostakovich's No. 24 in D minor. She smoothly executed its rapidly moving melody in octaves, and built the dynamics and intensity to a thrilling conclusion.

For an encore, she softened the mood with a delicate piece from the Catalan composer Frederic Mompou. "Secret," from his Impresiones intimas, made a nice light dessert after a full meal of increasingly complex music.

Harvey Steiman


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