David Nice
BBC Music Magazine
December 2019

Perhaps more familiar in Australia, as winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition which sponsored this recording, than in the UK, Andrey Gugnin has taken on a tough assignment for his Hyperion debut. An all-Shostakovich disc might sound like a winner—and in the most important sense it is - but none of the works represented here is ingratiating; had the pianist wished to be more so, he could have interlaced the monsters with transcriptions of the young Shostakovich's theatre music. The early First Piano Sonata out-Prokofievs Prokofiev in its turbulence and edges towards atonality—it was one of the works the senior composer heard from the new enfant terrible on the block when he paid his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1927. Robert Matthew-Walker makes a fascinating liner-note case for its elusive structure and tonal intent, clarifying the abstractions, while Gugnin rivets us in orchestral-sounding climaxes—the engineering gives us a wide spread from bass-left to high-treble-right and the metaphysical twilight zones in between.

The last sounds like one of Prokofiev's Visions fugitives, and so do some of the rather later (1932-3) Op 37 Preludes, not to be confused with the more consciously monumental set of 24 (featured in this recording) with marching fugues on a Bachian scale composed nearly two decades later. They were previously immortalised on Hyperion by Tatiana Nikolaeva and on Harmonia Mundi by Alexander Melnikov. Shostakovich composed the succinct character-pieces and etudes of the 1930s in a chronology corresponding to the numbers and the journey through the 24 keys—each one is dated in the score—but without any sense of culmination, though there's a central peak in Nos 13 and 14 (the pointedly testudinal F sharp major, a big E flat minor drama). Otherwise, contrasts are the name of the game. Again, Gugnin finds surprising poetry in the music, but if you want to persuade anyone of his transcendental technique in 25 seconds, play them the Fifth (D major) Prelude (track six), where the even passagework played at a rapid speed is little short of miraculous.

Not even this talented pianist can escape a sense of the desultory in the first two movements of the Second Piano Sonata, which is contemporary with Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony but at first nothing like it in scale. It's as if the composer were trying to go to the opposite extreme for contrast's sake. But maybe a certain spiritual emptiness or exhaustion is the point, and it all comes together in the finale's obsessive variations.

As a last nod towards the more conventionally lyrical, Gugnin gives us an encore in the shape of a piano reduction of the Nocturne from Shostakovich's tuneful ballet The Limpid Stream. That work came under fire in 1936 shortly after the much more controversial opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The piece requires only poetic sensibility, but the rest of this programme shows a ferocious new talent who can also accomplish introspection. Masterly.