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Khatia Buniatishvili: program notes

Khatia BuniatishviliKhatia Buniatishvili, piano
Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Monday, January 23, 2011

Franz Joseph Haydn, piano sonata no. 33 in C minor, Hob. XVI/20

Although Haydn’s role in the development of the symphony and string quartet is secure in the minds of many people, but they are still apt to forget just how important the genre of the piano sonata was to this composer. Haydn wrote about sixty of them, spread across a span of over forty years, from the 1750s to the 1790s.

The C-minor Sonata is an extraordinary work by any means of measure. It is the first sonata Haydn obviously intended as being specifically for the piano as opposed to the harpsichord, and the first to which he assigned the title “sonata” rather than “divertimento” or “partita.” It dates from 1771, when the composer was in his brief but significant Sturm und Drang period.

The Sturm und Drang (usually translated as “storm and stress”) movement originated in literature of the period, emphasizing emotional intensity, dark pathos, stormy moods, restless anxiety and a general avoidance of the elegant and superficial language common to the age. In music, this form of expression manifested itself in the frequent use of minor keys, persistent and dramatic alternations of loud and soft, rich textures, a large harmonic palette, unusual formal designs and wide tessituras (melodic range).

All these qualities can be found in the sonata at hand. It begins unequivocally in C minor, with an elegiac subject filled with expressive “sighs” and an atmosphere of yearning. But the key of the second subject is far more difficult to determine. It begins in A-flat major, moves to E-flat, and seems to resolve in B-flat, but only momentarily. Then it’s off to still more keys, and remote ones at that. Throughout the movement, little cadenzas, unexpected pauses, a profusion of decorative touches (notes ornamented with trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, and the like), rhythmic surprises, and chromatic twists of both harmony and melody keep the attentive ear constantly on edge. A development section worthy of Beethoven and an abrupt pianissimo ending to the movement are additional features of note.

The slow movement, in A-flat major, exists on a somewhat lower emotional plane. A singing melodic line (absent in the first movement) is the first quality to strike the listener. Later we hear long strings of syncopation, the bass line and the upper voice moving independently and at the same pace but in alternation (“out of sync,” in the vernacular).

The Finale returns to the pathos of the opening movement. It is full of restless momentum, daring modulations into distant keys, and abrupt excursions into contrasting, lighthearted moods. Music theorists have a ball analyzing its form, which ambiguously combines development and recapitulation sections.

Franz Liszt: piano sonata in B minor

More words have probably been written about Liszt’s B-minor Sonata than about any other single piano composition of the nineteenth century. Like many works we regard today as indubitable masterpieces, this one suffered a difficult birth.

Liszt completed the sonata on February 2, 1853 and dedicated it to Robert Schumann, who had fifteen years earlier dedicated his great Fantaisie, Op. 17 to Liszt.

In this sonata, Liszt brought to perfection the form Schubert had tried in his Wanderer Fantasy of 1822 – absorption of the four-movement sonata into a gigantic, single-movement work in several sections, all unified through the continuous process of thematic transformation. Liszt was intimately familiar with Schubert’s model, for he had made a transcription for piano and orchestra just a year before he completed his Sonata.

Like a sculpture, the sonata takes on a different character depending on the angle from which it is viewed.  Most commentators agree that the work conforms more or less to a large-scale sonata-allegro design (introduction – exposition – development – recapitulation – coda), though just where the divisions occur is a matter of differing viewpoints. Furthermore, this sonata-allegro design is superimposed onto a traditional four-movement structure as found in the classical symphony or string quartet (fast first movement – slow second movement – scherzo-like third movement – finale).  Hence, at any given moment in the sonata’s design, one can regard it from varying perspectives.

Essentially, the genius of this sonata can be summarized in pianist Louis Kentner’s words: “In the B-minor Sonata Liszt uses the device of presenting, in a short Introduction, three seemingly incongruous elements … and then proceeds to demonstrate how these can be welded into a unity of such compactness, of such compelling power, that it convinces even the unregenerate.” These three elements have no names, but might be identified as follows: a) a quietly gliding downward scale; b) a defiant outburst; c) a sinister ten-note motif preceded by a “drum-roll.” There are two further themes of great significance, a grandiose chorale-like subject first heard shortly after one of the famous double-octave passages, and a quietly reflective Andante sostenuto idea in F-sharp major (Liszt’s “beatific” key).  The initial gliding downward scale serves as a point of demarcation, recurring at major junctures of the sonata’s formal plan: at the beginning, leading into the Grandioso subject, the transition to the fugato, in the recapitulation again leading into the Grandioso subject, and at the very end. Some listeners like to regard it as a curtain used to separate acts of a drama.

As a rough guide, one might regard the exposition as the first movement; the development section as the quiet Andante sostenuto and the demonic fugato (equivalent to the second and third movements of a traditional design); and the recapitulation as the finale, followed by a coda that takes the listener full circle back to the mysterious downward gliding scale with which the sonata opened nearly half an hour before.

Needless to say, the sonata’s appeal lies in more than structural concerns. It is full of virtuosic effects, dramatic outbursts, profoundly meditative passages and intriguing variants of the basic motivic material. Perhaps Louis Kentner’s words will serve as the best approach to listening:  “Analysis should not attempt to break the seal of the mystery that is artistic creation anyway, but should say with humility: ‘We are in the presence of genius.’ The alchemy of genius will, thank God, forever remain a secret.

Sergei Prokofiev: piano sonata no. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83

As Prokofiev was a formidable concert pianist, it is not surprising that he devoted a large part of his output to solo piano music. Nine sonatas appeared throughout his lifetime, though not evenly spaced. The first four (1907-08) came from his conservatory years, though all were later re-written, followed by the fifth in 1923 (revised in 1953). A sixteen-year hiatus separated the fifth from the next three sonatas, sketched simultaneously in 1939 and sometimes referred to as the “war sonatas.” Of the nine, the Seventh is by far the best known.

Prokofiev began working on this sonata in 1939 and completed it in 1942. Sviatoslav Richter gave the first performance on January 18, 1943 in Moscow. Glenn Gould characterized the sonata as “built to last. … With its schizophrenic oscillation of mood and its nervous instability of tonality, it is certainly a war piece. It is full of that uniquely Prokofievian mixture of bittersweet lamentation, percussive intensity and … lyricism.”

Violent contrasts are found throughout the work, beginning on the first page of the score. The opening theme skims nervously and lightly over the keyboard, but culminates in a ruthless pounding figure. Yet even the contrasts within the entire first subject become a collective contrast to the calm and lyrical second subject (Andantino). Much of the tension in this sonata-form movement derives from the large-scale contrasts between the driving restlessness of the first subject and the gentleness of the second. The central movement is marked Andante caloroso (caloroso = warm) and does indeed offer a sweetly ingratiating theme in E major. This gives way to a new section (Poco più animato) that recalls somewhat the restlessness of the first movement. After the music grows to a powerful climax, we hear a brief reminder of the gently lyrical E-major theme, thus setting in strongest juxtaposition the violent harshness of the third movement, which moves relentlessly forward in 7/8 meter with the terrifying power of a musical juggernaut.

Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Stravinsky’s boundless fertility of imagination is nowhere more in evidence than in his ballet score for Petrushka (1911), one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century music. It actually began life as a concert piece for solo piano and orchestra, but when the composer played the passages that later became the “Russian Dance” and “Petrushka’s Cry” (within the section called “In Petrushka’s Room”) for Serge Diaghilev, the legendary impresario of the Ballets russes in Paris, Stravinsky was persuaded to alter the work and turn it into a ballet score.

The scenario involves the carnival scene at Shrove-tide (the three days preceding Ash Wednesday) in early nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, with all its attendant noise, bustle, high spirits, dances, magicians, vendors, side shows and attractions of all sorts – a veritable riot of sound and color. One of these attractions is a puppet show about a poor, unhappy clown found in fairgrounds in nearly every country. In Russia he is called Petrushka.

Ten years after the ballet was introduced in Paris, Arthur Rubinstein persuaded the composer to arrange a “Petrushka Sonata” for solo piano. (Details can be found in Rubinstein’s entertaining autobiography, My Many Years.)  It is dedicated to the pianist, as well it might be, for he paid Stravinsky the hefty fee of 5,000 francs for it, though one also notes that Rubinstein earned many times that amount for recitals in which he featured this dazzling display piece.

The three numbers amount to a bit less than half the complete ballet score. The highly animated “Russian Dance” is the music to which Petrushka and other puppets dance after being brought to life by a magician. “In Petrushka’s Room” was the first music Stravinsky wrote in his original conception of the score for piano and orchestra, wherein the puppet “exasperates the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios, [and] the orchestra retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” In these first two movements the piano part can be lifted largely intact from the complete orchestral score. However, “The Shrove-tide Fair” represents a true piano reduction of orchestral textures and sonorities. So brilliantly did Stravinsky realize this task that the piano “reduction” is scarcely less fascinating and colorful than the original. Here, in a sequence of episodes and dances, is displayed all the excitement and razzle-dazzle of the crowded carnival scene in Admiralty Square of old St. Petersburg.

In listening to this music, one is left with the indelible impression that, to Stravinsky, the piano is indeed a percussive instrument – an object of steel wires and hammers, not an instrument of vocal and lyrical attributes. He and Rubinstein had violent arguments over this matter (again, see My Many Years), but in the end, both emerged victorious with the resounding success of Petrushka in each of its versions.

Program notes by Robert Markow.

George Li: program notes

George LiLi at piano
Programme Notes
Performance: Vancouver Playhouse, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carl Czerny
Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op. 33 (“La Ricordanza”)

Most concertgoers know Carl Czerny only as the early nineteenth-century pedagogue who churned out endless dull exercises that continue to be inflicted upon piano students this day. True, he did compose a tremendous amount – 861 opus numbers and an even greater amount published without opus numbers – and true, the exercises are dull. But Czerny composed much else that is decidedly not dull.

Unlike his teacher Beethoven, and unlike his star pupil Franz Liszt, Czerny was no innovator, but within the parameters of his time much of his music is eminently pleasing, charming, tasteful and sensitively written. He wrote voluminously in nearly every known form and genre of the time: sonatas, fantasias, theme and variation sets, piano concertos, symphonies, sacred choral music, string quartets and much other chamber music. His most frequently recorded composition would seem to be an Andante and Pollaca for horn and piano, with the Variations on this afternoon’s program not far behind.

The variation form and its close cousin the fantasia were immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. Beethoven wrote some twenty sets of variations for piano. Czerny mined dozens of operas, symphonies, overtures, oratorios and ballets by Beethoven, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Weber and others for his variation sets and fantasias. From the famous French violinist Pierre Rode (1774-1830) he borrowed the tune “La Ricordanza” and set it as a theme with five variations for solo piano. A stately one precedes the final and most brilliant variation, which in turn is followed by a return to the theme for a quiet closing.

Arnold Schoenberg
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (Six Little Piano Pieces), Op. 19

Schoenberg, unlike the other composers represented on this program, was not a keyboard virtuoso. Nevertheless, he turned to the piano as a medium of experimentation on more than one occasion. One such occasion came in 1909, when he produced his first atonal composition, the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11.

Essentially what Schoenberg achieved in these pieces was the emancipation of dissonance from its ties to traditional harmony. A “dissonant” note or chord no longer had any contextual relationship to surrounding pitches; it existed in and of itself. It is traditional to view these pieces as a milestone, a break with the past, a giant step forward in the development of music history. Yet Schoenberg always regarded this music as an absolutely logical continuation of the past, something “distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music.”

Schoenberg’s next piano music, Op. 19, appeared in 1911. But whereas the three pieces of Op. 11 require about a quarter of an hour to perform, the six pieces of Op. 19 require barely five minutes. “A novel in a sigh” was the expression coined for such pieces.

Continuing where he left off in Op. 11, Schoenberg made the non-recurrence of thematic material the operating principle in Op. 19. The dynamic level is also telescoped, with emphasis on the softer end of the spectrum. And as David Burge points out, the performance direction mit sehr zartem Ausdruck (with very delicate expression) three bars before the end of the last piece “might well serve as an overall injunction for performance of the entire set.”

The first five pieces were written in February of 1911, possibly all in a single day. Microcosmic wisps of sound flutter about in No. 1, which is played nearly all pianissimo (very quiet). No. 2 features a single interval, the major third, repeated playfully (or obsessively, if that is your response) throughout. The third is notable for its opening bars in which the right hand plays forte (loud), the left hand piano (soft or quiet). No. 4 opens in a mood of frolic, but comes to a crashing end just twenty seconds later in brutally hammered fortissimo chords (very loud). Not even Schoenberg was immune to the waltz – it seems to run in the veins of nearly all Viennese; No. 5 suggests its characteristic rhythmic pattern.

The final piece was written in June, one month after Schoenberg accompanied Mahler to his grave. Bell-like sonorities evoke the remote, pastoral landscapes Mahler conjured up in his symphonies. Paolo Petazzi sees this haunting music as “motionless planes of sound set against one another [to] create a chill, insubstantial timbre which hovers on the edge of silence, as if pointing to a dimension the ear cannot perceive.”

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata no. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)

The “Appassionata” Sonata, composed in 1804-06, remains one of Beethoven’s greatest and most frequently heard works in any medium. The title helps, of course. It does have passion – to a generous degree. But it has much more than that. Czerny regarded the sonata as “the most perfect carrying out of a mighty and colossal plan.” As with so many of Beethoven’s compositions, the title was affixed not by the composer but by a publisher, in this case the Hamburg firm of Cranz, which brought out the sonata in a duet version in 1838. Strange as it may seem today, Czerny thought that an earlier Beethoven sonata ought to bear the title “Appassionata”, Op. 7 in E flat, a relatively tame work compared to Op. 57.

The opening movement is largely music of sound and fury, defined above all by rhythmic insistence. Both the defiantly rising principal subject (opening measures) and the lyrical, rising-and-falling second subject share a similar rhythmic pattern (long-short-long; long-short long), and both are built from arpeggios. “How wondrous that the composer can establish such diverse moods with the same material,” remarks pianist Anton Kuerti, “and especially that he can create such noble tranquility with this bumpy rhythm.” Additionally, there is a rhythmic motto appearing often throughout the movement that corresponds exactly to that of the opening of the Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-daahh).

The second movement offers an oasis of tranquility and repose. It is a theme-and-variations movement, built, like the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, more from a harmonic progression than from a melody. Each of the three variations employs increasingly rapid note values (eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds). Following is a small coda that disintegrates into a mysterious chord, which, as if jolted with an electric shock, reenergizes itself and launches into the finale.

This concluding movement, in sonata form like the first, is one of the most demonic things Beethoven ever wrote, a musical juggernaut of relentless forward momentum and almost frightening power. To Kuerti, “the accompaniment is the very substance of the music; its perpetuum mobile pervades all. It is quiet but chilling, like the waves in the middle of the ocean.  Over this rises a series of desolate, penetrating cries…” Tension builds to almost unbearable levels, finally bursting its bonds in the presto coda, which roars to an apocalyptic conclusion.

Mauric Ravel
Oiseaux tristes
Alborada del gracioso

In 1904-05, Ravel composed a set of five piano pieces collectively entitled Miroirs, which he claimed “marked a change in my harmonic development great enough to disconcert even those most accustomed to my style up to that point.” “Oiseaux tristes” (Sad Birds) is the second of the collection, “Alborada del gracioso” is the fourth. Each of the five Miroirs was dedicated to a different friend or colleague. “Oiseaux tristes” went to the famous Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance of the entire set in 1906. Ravel wrote “in this work, I evoke birds engrossed in the torpor of a dark forest during the peak hours of summer heat.”

“Alborada del gracioso” is one of Ravel’s most brilliant and effective evocations of Spain, richly informed with coloristic detail, evocative images, percussive effects and pyrotechnical displays (particularly the rapidly repeated notes played at all-but-impossible speeds). The title resists direct translation; it implies something along the lines of a court jester singing to his ladylove at dawn, and perhaps dancing a bit as well. Ravel later orchestrated the work, in which form it is often heard at symphony concerts.

The ten-minute work is laid out in three connected sections. The brilliant outer parts are characterized by alternating patterns of vibrant rhythms set to the clack of simulated castanets and raucous strumming of a guitar. Boston Symphony annotator Steven Ledbetter refers to this music as “a glorious racket. As a real ‘dawn song,’ the work would be catastrophic; in addition to waking the lovers, it would arouse the entire neighborhood.” The somewhat meditative central section evokes more the clownish aspect of the work’s title.

Franz Liszt
Consolation no. 3 in D flat major
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2

In 2009 it was Mendelssohn. In 2010, Chopin and Schumann. This year, another giant from the annals of the world’s greatest composer-pianists, Franz Liszt, takes the spotlight on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Liszt was the quintessential figure of nineteenth-century musical Romanticism. His long life encompassed any number of emotional upheavals, quasi-mystical religious experiences, a visit from the Pope, an attempted murder, a cancelled marriage at the eleventh hour, enough love affairs (including with royalty) for any ten normal men, at least half a dozen occupations, visionary ideas of Music of the Future, a compulsion to be different (he was the first to give a complete solo recital without sharing the stage with other artists), an all-consuming sense of destiny, pianistic powers beyond belief, and a mind of near-genius proportions. Liszt was a biographer’s dream.

In 1848 Liszt abandoned his career as a spectacular touring piano virtuoso to settle in Weimar as a conductor. Concurrently, his output for piano slowed considerably, but he did produce two final etudes in 1862-1863. Formally known as Two Concert Etudes, they are more commonly referred to by their poetic subtitles, which, incidentally, do not appear on the autograph manuscript. Both are dedicated to Liszt’s pupil Dionys Prunker.

In Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), the trees rustle almost continuously as portrayed in the sextuplet figuration that alternates from right hand to left while the other hand spins out a single tranquil melody dolce con grazia (sweetly and gracefully). This music comes from the romantic world of the mysterious, dimly-lit forest (Schumann’s Waldszenen appeared just fifteen years earlier, and Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” in the opera Siegfried were just a few years down the road), yet it is nevertheless highly chromatic. As Ben Arnold points out, there are no fewer than ten changes of key within its 97 measures.

While Waldesrauschen is a study in lyricism and tranquility, Gnomenreigen (Round Dance of the Gnomes) glitters and sparkles. Its spiritual ancestors are the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the “Queen Mab” Scherzo from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliet. “One of Liszt’s cleverest and most facetious works,” claims Arnold.

The six Consolations were published as a group in 1850 (all but No. 5 were composed in 1848). “Their reflective, self-communing character reveals a new and much more thoughtful Liszt,” writes Liszt scholar Alan Walker. The title has two possible derivations, both poetic. Most scholars, including Walker, attribute it to a collection of poems by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the Consolations of 1830. Another possibility is Lamartine’s poem “Une larme, ou consolation.”  In either case, a quality of melancholy and introspection permeates the music, as it does the poems (“music tinged with a secret sorrow,” as Walker writes). No. 3, marked Lento placido, is the longest, probably the best known, and the one closest in style to Chopin nocturnes – comparison with the one in the same key, D flat major (Op. 27, No. 2) is almost inevitable.

Liszt was captivated by Hungarian gypsy music all his life, right from childhood. He collected melodies he heard played at campsites and other locations. His writings are peppered with references to them and their music, and he even wrote a 450-page treatise on the subject, published in 1859. Liszt was mistaken in equating “gypsy” music with that of the Hungarian Magyars, as research by Bartók, Kodály and others has proven. The themes he used actually came from “urban” sources, mostly popular tunes recently composed. The gypsy flavor derives from use of the so-called “gypsy scale,” sectional structure punctuated by sudden breaks, abrupt transitions, and a freely improvisatory style. Contrast and gathering momentum are the principal shaping forces of this music.

The nineteen rhapsodies were composed across a span of more than four decades. No. 2, by far the most popular, comes from 1847. Thereafter came arrangements, rearrangements and disarrangements for everything from simplified versions for young piano students to full orchestra, and in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to feature films (100 Men and a Girl).

No. 2, like many of the Rhapsodies, begins with a slow introduction leading into an Andante mesto, which features a lush, passionate theme. The second main part is the friska, which begins quietly and gradually builds in speed, texture and volume.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.

Program Notes: Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues

Dmitri Shostakovich: 12 Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87

Like many of the great composers before him (Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, among others), Shostakovich possessed the skills of a keyboard virtuoso, and might well have sustained a successful career as such. Among his prizes was one from the First International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1927). But Shostakovich’s compositional talent also showed itself early. His graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory, the First Symphony, catapulted him at the age of twenty to worldwide attention, and he decided to devote the bulk of his efforts to composition. Significantly enough, the First Symphony contained a prominent part for the piano. Shostakovich continued to write music for his instrument throughout his twenties – about half his output during these years was for or with piano – which he also performed. Thereafter, coinciding with the sharp reduction of his performing activity, he wrote only seldom for solo piano. Among the works of his later years was the monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, written in late 1950 and early 1951.

The inspiration came principally from Bach, as it has for similar sets from other composers: Hans Huber, Castelnuovo-Tedesco (for guitar duo) and Niels Viggo Bentzon for preludes and fugues together; Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich himself (Op. 34) for preludes alone. In 1950, Shostakovich was sent by his government as the head of a Soviet delegation to East Germany for the ceremonies surrounding the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the events was a piano competition in Leipzig, where Shostakovich sat on the jury. One of the contestants was the 26-year-old Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier so impressed Shostakovich that upon returning to Moscow, he undertook to create a similar work himself. Unlike Bach’s two books of preludes and fugues, each of which proceeds up the steps of the chromatic scale alternating major and minor keys (C – C-sharp – D, etc.), Shostakovich’s (like Chopin’s) move through the so-called “circle of fifths,” which begins with C major and its  relative minor (A), then adds one sharp for G major/E minor, then two sharps, etc. (at this point the flat keys take over in reverse order, decreasing in number down to one – F major/D minor – where the cycle ends).

The first performance presented what amounted only to a teaser: Shostakovich offered four of the preludes and fugues at a recital on November 18, 1951 in Leningrad’s Glinka Hall. The cycle was not given as a unit until a year later when Tatiana Nikolayeva performed it at the same venue in two sessions, on December 23 and 28, 1952. There is conflicting evidence as to Shostakovich’s feelings about whether the 2½-hour cycle should be played complete in performance. He himself never did so, though he recorded all of it. He did often perform the preludes and fugues in groups of three to six, as have many other pianists, notably Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Selected numbers have been arranged for such diverse instruments as organ, accordion, double bass with piano and string orchestra.

In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of  twentieth-century piano literature. To Tatiana Nikolayeva, it is music “of great depth, of unsurpassed mastery and greatness. They are 24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world. …The breadth of images and characterizations is very great: from tragedy to humor, from gaiety to the grotesque.” Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers maintains that “if there is a single work among his large output that assures us that Shostakovich is among the handful of great composers [of the twentieth century], this collection is it.” And for tonight’s pianist, Alexander Melnikov, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.”

In an interview accompanying his recording of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Melnikov suggests that one of Shostakovich’s aims was to see what he could do with the forms beyond Bach, what he could do with material completely unsuitable as a fugal subject. Take for example the first fugue (C major), which employs only the white keys of the piano throughout, or the seventh (A major), whose subject is built entirely from a major triad. In the preludes too, there is in each one a sense of experimentation, of compressing a single idea into a few pages of music to see where it will go. Each one has a “message.”

NO. 1 IN C MAJOR: The cycle gets underway with a sarabande, a stately Baroque dance in slow triple meter with its characteristic rhythmic pattern. Chordal writing alternates with flowing chromatic passages. The fugal subject is built almost entirely from the intervals of the fourth and the fifth.

NO. 2 IN A MINOR: The Prelude is a toccata-like affair (“pure harpsichord textures,” says Melnikov), with a single line of rapid sixteenth-notes running in perpetual motion throughout. The Fugue has been compared to some of Shostakovich’s polkas for its jaunty, humorous mood. The five-note rhythmic cell upon which it is based recalls a jocular passage from the third movement of the Fourth Symphony.

NO. 3 IN G MAJOR: The stern Prelude sounds like its inspiration could have come from a liturgical chant, while the Fugue could not be more different in character – witty, playful, dancelike, and demanding virtuosity and crystalline clarity of execution to make its effect.

NO. 4 IN E MINOR: The Prelude is a three-part texture consisting of (1) ponderous, sustained octaves in the depths of the piano’s range; (2) a continuous, even stream of eighth notes, usually in the middle voice; and (3) a slower-moving melodic line that includes numerous “sighs.” (Bach associated E minor with the Crucifixion.) The Fugue is actually a double fugue. Two separate subjects are introduced in turn (the second in slightly faster tempo), then are combined fortissimo in a towering musical edifice.

NO. 5 IN D MAJOR: “A graceful, wistful dance-song over a lightly arpeggiated accompaniment” is how Wilfrid Mellers describes this Prelude. The Fugue consists of “a theme stuttering in repeated notes, with farcical clownish effect.”

NO. 6 IN B MINOR: A striking Prelude built on the double-dotted rhythmic figure (extra-long notes alternating with extra-short ones) flashes fire and energy in contrast to its Fugue, notable for a flowing, placid surface.

NO. 7 IN A MAJOR: The spirit of Bach hovers over the Prelude. Its meter of 12/8 (four groups of triplets) was far more common in the Baroque era than it is today. The fugal subject is based entirely on the notes of the tonic chord (A – C-sharp – E). This fugue might be considered Shostakovich’s “water music” inasmuch as the texture – glistening, sparkling, gently undulating – not to mention the continuous development of a single arpeggiated chord, bring to mind the opening scene of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold.

NO. 8 IN F SHARP MINOR: One of the briefest preludes sits beside the longest fugue by far of the twelve we hear tonight – nearly nine minutes in Melnikov’s performance. The Prelude is written in simple two-part texture, and in Shostakovich’s inimitable fashion combines a playful ambiance with a touch of the sinister. It is also the first prelude we have encountered to feature Shostakovich’s hallmark rhythmic pattern, short-short-long. The Fugue too incorporates this rhythmic figure into its fold. The subject is exceptionally long – nine measures – and thereafter unwinds in three-part texture to an unrelenting tread and highly dissonant harmony.

NO. 9 IN E MAJOR: In a reversal of the process found in the previous Prelude and Fugue, No. 9’s focal weight rests in its Prelude – longer by far than the Fugue. This Prelude is also notable for its extremes of range, which cover nearly the entire keyboard; three staves are required to notate it. The Fugue is the only one of the 24 in two voices only, and exudes an atmosphere of joy and exuberance. Many listeners hear in it strong reverberations of a Bach two-part invention.

NO. 10 IN C SHARP MINOR: Again the spirit of Bach informs this Prelude. In fact, it, as well as its Fugue, is often regarded as the most Bachian of the set. The words of Bach biographer Philipp Spitta regarding the C sharp minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier might equally apply to Shostakovich’s in the same key: “…it is as though we were drifting rapidly over a wide ocean; wave rises over wave … as far as the eye can reach, and the brooding heavens bend solemnly over the mighty scene.”

NO. 11 IN B MAJOR:  The B major Prelude suggests an orchestral conception, particularly the jocular, light-hearted movements of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9. For sheer, unabashed joy and an almost reckless sense of abandon, the Fugue is hard to beat.

NO. 12 IN G SHARP MINOR: The Prelude is written in passacaglia form (a method of composition in which a set of variations is constructed over a repeating bass line or chord progression). As the key of G sharp minor has five sharps, the meter for the Fugue is appropriately 5/4. The intellectual rigor with which Shostakovich creates a fugue from his angular, raw-boned subject is truly awe-inspiring. Melnikov calls it “the most harmonically complex fugue of the cycle so far, played at a breakneck pace, reaching an impossible degree of emotional strain and desperation. Thus, the stage is set for the culmination of the first volume.”

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.