For a composer who could have become a concert pianist instead, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote little for solo piano. The two sonatas are good but not great; the 24 Preludes, op. 34, are solid but not often played. The Three Fantastic Dances get some airings. Towering over those pieces are the 24 Preludes and Fugues, written for Tatiana Nikolayeva after Shostakovich heard her at the Bicentennial Bach competition in Leipzig in 1950.
The composer said the 150-minute set wasn’t meant to be performed as a cycle, but Alexander Melnikov makes a solid argument against that claim, in words and sound. Sure, the fugue’s predictable structure can easily discourage variety, and melodies that work well for fugues are rarely memorable, but Shostakovich’s genius was that he often used themes that should never have been used for fugues, somehow making them work. The D-Flat Major’s weird theme spreads out chromatically from the starting note, in a wedge shape, changing time signatures deliriously. The A Major uses a broken chord figuration as the theme— it’s an accompaniment to a non-existent melody, yet it ends up making the most beautiful fugue of them all. The preludes, too, touch on all sorts of styles, from the balalaika strums of the D Major to the subtle tributes to Bach and ancient church modes in the C Major, from the Debussy-like swirls of the A Minor to the echoes of Russian liturgical music in the D Minor. The B-Flat Major is a perpetual motion, a collision between the “Flight of the Bumblebee” and a polka, all in the guise of a piano etude.
Melnikov brings out the pieces’ personalities better than anyone I’ve heard; Nikolayeva’s Hyperion recording is labored and gray, and she casts a long shadow—Ashkenazy’s and Jarrett’s versions have similar faults. Melnikov’s polyphonic clarity is superior as well—the lines blur only when Shostakovich makes anything else impossible. And his playing never lacks color, either—his command of shading is enviable. I initially listened with cynicism to his interpretation of the C Major Fugue, but after hearing the whole set a few times, I began to see how it served his idea of the opus as a cycle instead of a collection. The G Major Fugue is a riot of joy. In the D Major Fugue with its joking repeated notes, Melnikov finds the puckishness others have missed. Only the insufferably long B Minor Fugue drags. He takes rhythmic liberties with the D-Flat Major Prelude, turning the middle section into a laughter-inducing drunken waltz. The massive D Minor pairing that ends the cycle is everything it should be—majestic, pensive, surging, exciting, never morose, dull, or fumbling.
The sound is spacious and rich, but the piano is sometimes too bright, making a few pieces clangy, and the music is spread over three discs—to have to switch discs right before the D Minor is tragic. The value of Melnikov’s interpretation makes up for these drawbacks, though. The DVD has a 23-minute interview in English with the earnest-looking pianist—he’s knowledgeable and committed to his art, and communicates his ideas well. If I had to, I’d sell any other set I had to buy this one.