Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDA66441/3 - Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues Op 87
Frontispiece for Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman by Alexander Nikolayevich Benois (1870-1960)

Recording details: September 1991
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: February 1991
DISCID: 0C0D8614 D90CE20E BF0C900E
Total duration: 162 minutes 2 seconds


'This magnificent set courageously undertaken by Hyperion, a timely document of an interpretation fashioned from Nikolayeva's collaboration with the composer at the time of composition' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)

'The recording is clear and atmospheric, and the playing has power, grandeur, character, intellectual clarity and unforced intensity' (Gramophone)

'The record that has given me greater pleasure than any other this year' (The Sunday Times)

'Performances which are at once gripping through their pianistic brilliancs and illuminating through their unflinching perception. Amazing' (Classic CD)

'A performing document of inestimable importance … Hyperion should be congratulated for masterminding this important issue' (CDReview)

'Where this work is concerned, as in her playing of much else, she has rightly been called his High Priestess' (Piano, Germany)

24 Preludes & Fugues Op 87
By 1950, the occupation of the defeated German Reich by the Allied Armies had—as could perhaps have been foreseen—begun to fracture into new alliances. Germany had been divided into four Zones of Occupation, each assigned to the four main victorious powers: the USSR, France, Great Britain and the United States. A series of elections within the broad zones, marred by the Soviet authorities’ unwillingness to recognize the Social Democratic Party—claiming it had been absorbed by the Communist-backed Socialist Unity Party—led to the USSR delegation walking out of the Allied Control Council in Berlin in March 1948. Backed by the Soviet Union—which controlled the largest area of defeated Germany (but with the second-largest population)—a blockade of Berlin began on 1 April and lasted until 30 September 1949.

During the blockade, broken by what was called the ‘Berlin Air-Lift’, a new state, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany, was proclaimed in May 1949, with Bonn as the capital. West Germany’s first post-war general elections took place the following August. But it was not until October 1949 that the Soviet Zone was proclaimed as the ‘All-German Republic’, with its first elections scheduled for October, 1950.

Within five years of the end of the Second World War, therefore, Germany was again at the heart of European discord, made more universal by the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and potentially more destructive by the production—begun in the USA the previous January—of the world’s first hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Hydrogen bomb production was in response to the detonation, in September 1949, of Russia’s first atomic bomb.

The new Soviet-dominated ‘All-German Republic’ included the old province of Saxony, with its three main cities of Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz (the last soon to be renamed as Karl-Marx-Stadt). Of these three, Leipzig was undoubtedly the musical capital of the whole of Germany, the city of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Richard Wagner, the home of the Conservatory and the Gewandhaus. Most importantly of course, it housed the church of St Thomas, the Thomaskirche, dating from the late fifteenth century, which had survived the wartime Allied bombardment. The Church was to be the focal point of the celebrations held in the City during July 1950 to mark the 200th anniversary of the death there of Johann Sebastian Bach, who had—since 1723—been cantor of the City of Leipzig.

Bach, as was the custom of the time, had been buried in a wooden coffin. By the end of the nineteenth century the wood had deteriorated badly, and Bach’s body was exhumed in 1895. Photographs were then taken of the master’s skeleton after Professor His had performed an autopsy on Bach’s remains, and on 28 July 1949, Bach’s coffin, containing his mortal remains, was finally laid to rest in the choir room of the Thomaskirche. The 1950 celebrations were also to mark the anniversary of Bach’s final resting-place.

Russia had suffered greatly at the hands of the German Army; the Russian resistance bore fruit as the Red Army pursued the retreating invaders back across the borders into the heart and very capital of Germany. As they liberated Eastern Europe they exacted a fierce and total retribution: many treasures, commercial as well as artistic, and many tons of raw material, were taken to Russia. But with the establishment of the ‘All-German Republic’ it became vital to establish the new state as both a friend of Russia, and a match for Western capitalism.

And so Dmitri Shostakovich found himself sent in 1949 to New York as delegate of the World Peace Conference, and in 1950 to Warsaw as part of the Soviet Committee for the second World Peace Conference, before going to Leipzig in July as the principal Soviet delegate to the Bach commemorations—as a member of the jury of the Bicentennial Bach Competition. Whilst there, Shostakovich naturally absorbed much of Bach’s music, and also experienced aspects of the milieu in which it had been written.

One of the entrants for the Competition was the twenty-six-year-old Russian pianist and composer Tatiana Nikolayeva, a recent graduate from the Moscow Conservatoire and a piano pupil of the legendary Alexander Goldenweiser (then seventy-five years old; he was to be a Professor of piano there for fifty-five years, numbering Kabalevsky and Lazar Berman amongst his pupils). Nikolayeva studied composition with Evgeny Golubev, whose pupils also include Alfred Schnittke, and she has since written two Piano Concertos, a Sonata and much other music for solo piano, as well as vocal works.

In 1974, she recalled the circumstances of the 1950 Bach Competition: ‘It was a great occasion; in fact it was a sort of national celebration with invited guests, amongst whom Dmitri Dmitrievich had a special place of honour. I was then a young girl, just out of the Conservatory but I had nerve and entered for the Competition and won first prize playing the whole of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Klavier). And if this then is what stimulated Shostakovich to write his own 24 Preludes and Fugues then I’m tremendously pleased.’

It was indeed. Shostakovich was much impressed by Nikolayeva’s playing, and delighted by her winning first prize. Back in Moscow he conceived the idea of writing a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues (one in each of the major and minor keys) for solo piano. This would be a very different composition from those which earned him a State Prize in 1950: the pleasant but somewhat anodyne oratorio The Song of the Forests (Op 81) and the film score The Fall of Berlin (Op 82). The Preludes and Fugues, by their very nature, would form a ‘private’ collection, not one essentially for public display.

For the early 1950s were also a period of great uncertainty for Soviet composers. The notorious Zhdanov Decree of 1948 had humiliated Prokofiev, Miaskovsky, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky—among others—and especially Shostakovich: such leading figures found themselves at the mercy of those lesser, more politically sycophantic, figures who controlled Soviet music.

With artistic uncertainty at home, and greater uncertainties abroad, what could have been more natural for Shostakovich than to concentrate his creative energies on a major work which he could compose and perform in his own study, free from outside interference? The artistic challenge such an undertaking posed would stretch his own compositional powers to the limit, concentrate upon timeless truths of European music, and be the catalyst by which his future could—in certain technical aspects, at the very least—greatly benefit.

On 10 October 1950, shortly after his forty-fourth birthday, Shostakovich began what became his Opus 87 (originally, he designated it Opus 89). The set was finished on 25 February 1951. Whilst Bach’s ‘48’ clearly provided the stimulus for Shostakovich, he did not slavishly follow the master’s precedent. Unlike Bach’s order, of semi-tonal ascent, Shostakovich adopted the same format used in his earlier set of 24 Preludes for piano Opus 34 (1932/3), of ascending fifths. Also, as with the Opus 34 Preludes, the Preludes and Fugues were composed in the order in which they are published.

But Shostakovich paid subtle homage to the earlier master: his Opus 87 begins with the identical notes with which Bach began the first book of the ‘48’, and various of Shostakovich’s pieces likewise transform Bach’s material. However, throughout this music we are in no doubt as to the creative personality of the artist addressing us: it is Dmitri Shostakovich, the twentieth-century master, whose music—as time passes—is perceived more and more to be that of a truly great composer, not just of his or of our time, but for all time.

NOTE: After consultation with the composer, and with his approval, Tatiana Nikolayeva makes a few minor adjustments to the printed text. These include such adaptations as the occasional ad libitum repetition of pedal bass notes as in the Prelude of No 20, the delayed final fifth of Fugue No 4, and the octave bass transposition at the end of Fugue No 18.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1990

   English   Français   Deutsch