How long is it since your jaw dropped—I mean, actually dropped? Too long? OK, get hold of this CD and listen to track 6, which contains the fifth of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes—all 25 seconds of it! I had to check I hadn’t put on a CD of Conlon Nancarrow by mistake, so staggeringly fast and perfect was it. Yes, jaw-on-the-floor time!
However, Andrey Gugnin—the pianist in question—is no mere note-machine. He has a truly transcendental technique, no doubt, but his playing throughout this immensely challenging programme is a source of sheer delight. His characterisation of the preludes—that No 5 is the shortest, but many are less than two minutes long—is so compelling, revealing a performer who understands deeply the well-springs of Shostakovich’s music. To take just two examples, Preludes 14 (Adagio) and 15 (Allegretto): the first is an intense slow movement, that rises to a climax of heroic tragedy; the second, following hot on its heels, is one of those wry ‘fairground’ waltzes you’ll find right through Shostakovich’s output—plus a surprise ending. Gugnin’s interpretations are so vivid that there is an emotional shock in moving abruptly from one piece to the other.
Gugnin was the winner of the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition, and is not only a solo pianist, but also a chamber musician. He’s just over 30 years old, but his playing has quite remarkable poise and maturity. He has already produced acclaimed recordings of the Shostakovich concertos, and a disc of violin and piano sonatas, with Ioana Cristina Goicea, but with this recording I feel he has moved into the very top rank of today’s pianists.
The Preludes, composed 1932-3, are appropriately framed by Piano Sonatas 1 and 2, from 1926-7 and 1943 respectively. Sonata No 1, we are told in Robert Matthew-Walkers’ mostly thoughtful and informative booklet notes, was originally titled ‘October Symphony’; that description was eventually given to the Symphony No 2, but that fact gives the key to the character of this powerful short work, and its subject matter—the October Revolution of 1917. It is in a single movement, but has clearly defined contrasting sections: a dramatic and stressful opening gives way to a grotesque dance-like episode, strongly reminiscent of Prokofiev. From there, it gradually builds up to a conclusion of almost unequalled violence and discord—clearly a quite different take on the Revolution from the ‘Soviet Realist’ stance of the Second Symphony.
The later sonata is quite a different animal. It is an avowedly memorial work, being dedicated to the memory of one of Shostakovich’s early piano teachers, Leonid Nikolayev, who had died in Tashkent in 1942, having been evacuated there from Moscow. The first movement is an apparently lively movement, with a persistent march-like tread, despite the rapid semiquaver figuration. The spare central Largo is the most obvious expression of Shostakovich’s reflections on Nikolayev’s death. But it is the finale—nearly the length of the first two movements added together—that is by far the most interesting. It is based on the long, hauntingly strange melody presented at the start. Only one hand plays for what seems like an age; but gradually the music turns into a highly unorthodox set of variations on the main theme. (Warning: the tune is a bit of what is known as an ‘ear-worm’!)
Perhaps the highest praise for Gugnin arises from the fact that, throughout these remarkable and highly contrasted works, one mostly forgets about the existence of an ‘interpreter’, so directly does the composer’s voice speak to us. The unobtrusively perfect Hyperion recording helps this impression further.
Compared to the symphonies, concertos and quartets, this is an unfamiliar part of Shostakovich’s huge oeuvre, so this recording has that inherent value; but it is undoubtedly also a confirmation of the arrival of an outstanding talent on the world musical scene.