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Shostakovich: The Preludes & Fugues / Alexander Melnikov

Shostakovich / Melnikov
Release Date: 06/08/2010 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 902019  
Composer:  Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Alexander Melnikov
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SHOSTAKOVICH 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87 Alexander Melnikov (pn) HARMONIA MUNDI 902019.20 (3 CDs: 151:16)

Alexander Melnikov is no stranger to Fanfare ’s pages. Colin Clarke (30:2) thought his Scriabin dazzling, if not always delivering on the “mystical” side of things, while Robert Maxham (32:4) found his account of the first movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Read more with Isabelle Faust featured “mercurial changes between strength and delicacy” in a “reading [that] never seems fussy.” Here he performs Shostakovich, and with distinction.

Recordings of the preludes and fugues have been dominated over the years by Tatiana Nikolayeva. Her performances of Bach inspired the composer’s efforts, and she received the work’s dedication. Nikolayeva recorded it three times—in 1962, 1987, and 1990—each taking a monumental approach to the composition that emphasized harmonic weight and color. Melnikov by contrast favors linear clarity, and a greater prominence given to rubato. A good example is furnished by the C-Minor Prelude. Under Nikolayeva’s fingers, the spacious, massed chords of the theme sound like a Russian Orthodox hymn sung by a choir, the sustain pedal extending the notes in a way that resembles the resonating decay of a cathedral. Melnikov is at once a bit quicker, and emphasizes the top line at the expense of the supporting harmony. The answering phrase speeds up and slows down with an almost Middle Eastern chanting effect, not unlike the treatment sometimes accorded the clarinet theme in the Ninth Symphony’s second movement. To call this performance “more pianistic” would be a mistake, since both versions are being performed to excellent effect—and on a piano, at that; but certainly Melnikov’s version never ceases to remind us of his instrument, whereas Nikolayeva repeatedly suggests a number of different musical settings.

This is no slur on Melnikov. It’s simply a different approach, and in some respects a more intimate one. There is more attention paid to details of accenting, for one thing—as in the E-Major Prelude, where a slight lingering on cadence points, a diminuendo on the final cadence, and a series of rests articulate the melody to better advantage. The expansiveness and rubato accorded the Prelude in F?-Minor brings it a warmth I’ve seldom heard so well expressed, while the sharp accents and brutal zest of the Prelude in D?-Major makes it sound like the sort of music Shostakovich as a silent-film accompanist might have parodied for a saloon waltz. Some listeners will undoubtedly prefer a cooler, less emotive approach, but I find it both engaging and individual, discovering a greater measure of personality in each piece than much of the competition. A strong technique is essential for the articulation Melnikov demands, of course, and his technique is certainly up to the task.

Harmonia Mundi’s sound is excellent, boasting a full range of overtones, good equalization throughout, and no evidence of the piano’s mechanism. I do have one complaint, though, and it’s the packaging. Yes, I realize it’s standard to put the first 12 preludes and fugues on one CD, but that means some performances can’t manage to fit the second group of 12 on one more CD. CD 2 here takes 71:29, with the 24th prelude and fugue weighing in at 11:48. Instead, they get moved to a third CD, whose remainder is spent in a short DVD interview with the pianist. It’s a nuisance, despite the quality of Melnikov’s insights. In future, please let us have more of the music on the first disc. We’re smart enough to figure out how to stop the player temporarily at the halfway mark, and ponder what we’ve heard.

That aside, this version goes to the head of the class, tying with Nikolayeva’s 1962 reading (Doremi 7991), ahead of the pallid Jarrett (ECM 437189) and Rubackyté (Brilliant Classics 8463), flabby Petrushansky (Stradivarius 33763), cautious Weichert (Accord 4428213), and humorless Scherbakov (Naxos 8.554745/6). Ashkenazy’s reading (Decca 466 066) is something of a special case. I find it too mild, but others may prefer it to the strong character exhibited by both Melnikov and Nikolayeva. Finally, I’d put in a strong word for the excerpts of the work recorded by Shostakovich himself, with a few of these in their best current incarnations on EMI 62648.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Preludes and Fugues (24) for Piano, Op. 87 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Alexander Melnikov (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950-51 

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