Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International
October 2019

Andrey Gugnin is yet to become a household name despite numerous competition successes in recent years and fruitful collaborations with musicians such as Tasmin Little, but on the strength of this Shostakovich programme I can see this changing rapidly.

Shostakovich’s First Piano Sonata was originally to have the revolutionary ‘October’ title which was eventually transferred to the Second Symphony, but this background is helpful in getting to grips with the white-hot energy that grips us for much of the piece. Andrey Gugnin’s technique is more than equal to the technical demands of this work, and he manages to bring out inner details that reveal the emergent mature composer hiding within the strident youthful manner that has made the piece one of Shostakovich’s less well-known pieces. This is a breathtaking performance that blows alternatives such as the rather heavy-sounding Konstantin Scherbakov out of the water, and challenges Peter Donohoe for fiery detail, even though the latter brings the work in over half a minute shorter than Gugnin. The Hyperion sound quality is certainly very fine indeed, and you can really feel the resonance from each of those low strings in the piano.

Gugnin’s Russian pedigree and clear affinity with Shostakovich’s music is potently in evidence throughout this well-filled disc, and this is also true of the 24 Preludes. Teasing wit, profound poetry, lyrical grace and those whiffs of music past are all beautifully explored in this recording, Gugnin’s little expressive commas all perfectly placed to my ears. There are too many alternatives to make meaningful comparisons for this work, though I was intrigued to see Raymond Clarke’s well-regarded 1999 recording is still available. The piano sound on this Athene Records release is a little more distant and generalised when compared to the Hyperion recording, but remains an impressive document. Clarke even brings in the First Piano Sonata in at 10:22 which has to be amongst the most explosively compact around.

Symphonic in scale, the Second Piano Sonata was indeed composed just before Shostakovich commenced work on his Eighth Symphony. Tonal control and a greater transparency characterise and contrast this sonata with the First, and Gugnin’s touch is as responsive to the first movement’s busy nervousness as it is to the second movement’s darkness, a ‘lamenting largo’ as Robert Matthew-Walker describes it in his excellent booklet notes. Gugnin makes time stand still here without running aground in musical stasis; indeed bringing in a shorter duration than Emil Gilels in his 1960s RCA recording, which is still something of a standard-bearer for this work. The final movement is almost as long as the first two put together, opening with that memorable extended theme in a monody that opens out into a musical stream of wide-ranging moods and variations. Gugnin doesn’t fill that opening line with quite as much thoughtful expression as Gilels, setting it up less as something enigmatic in its own right, but as an anticipation of what is to follow—integrated and aligned with the performance as a whole. Peter Donohoe is swifter again at this point in his Signum recording, to my mind losing the potential in this opening, which should keep us on the edge of our seats always just a little longer than we expect before that magical exhalation as the accompaniment arrives. Much as I admire Donohoe’s performance of this movement further along I fear it gets off on the wrong foot, that theme gaining heft as things progress, but finding heft that it should have had from the beginning, implied if not necessarily mapped out note for note. Gugnin doesn’t over-egg the opening, but neither does he ham it up too much later on—adding his own expressive inflections but remaining playful and transparent—bringing in a performance that balances on that knife-edge between structural integrity and the composer’s permission to sprawl a little over this movement’s indulgent late-Schubertian proportions. There are many more recordings of this work that combine Russian spirit and soul with just the right amount of sparkle, and I still admire Irina Chukovskaya on the Melodiya label. Subjective responses will dictate your own favourites, but Andrey Gugnin’s Goldilocks zone playing ‘gets it just right’ in my view.

The programme is rounded off with the tiny Nocturne from Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Stream, a production that was on at around the same time the composer was being denounced for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The decidedly inoffensive Nocturne is not much more than a brief little salon melody, and is a nice but inessential encore after the weighty duration of the Second Sonata. All in all this is one of the finest piano discs to come my way this year, and Andrey Gugnin is a name I shall certainly be looking out for in future.