Shostakovich: Preludes & Fugues
For as long as I can remember there have been two pieces of received wisdom about Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues: first, that with perhaps one or two exceptions they can be seen as the nearest this astonishingly fluent composer ever came to sketching—that there's little here he didn't subsequently do rather better on a larger scale in symphonies or quartets; second, that the imitations of Bach rarely rise above pastiche—far better the real thing.
The only reason these ideas have persisted, I think, is because there have been so few performances and recordings. Shostakovich's only moderately well-known versions of a handful of them (Parlophone, 7/58—nla) are to me confusing: nervous, inhibited perhaps, and in places close to perfunctory, as though simply getting through them were all that mattered—little chance of profound enlightenment there. But when the Preludes and Fugues' dedicatee, Tatyana Nikolaieva, brought them to London a few years ago, there was a lot of rethinking of critical opinions, to say nothing of requests for recordings.
Despite my glowing memories of Nikolaieva's performances, the Hyperion set was far from disappointing. The recording is clear and atmospheric, the booklet detailed and informative, and the playing has power, grandeur, character, intellectual clarity and unforced intensity—that's enough attributes. I'll simply add that at the end of it all her contention that these are ''24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world'' sounds utterly plausible. If you still find yourself hesitating over the set in your record shop, ask them to play the D major Fugue (No. 5), or the lovely, almost Chopin-like F sharp major Prelude (No. 13). Other prize moments, like the F sharp minor Fugue (No. 8) or the seemingly timeless B flat minor Fugue (No. 21) are better appreciated in private.
As for Marios Papadopoulos's recordings on Kingdom—there's a lot to admire here, but overall I am not so convinced. His rubato can sound too consciously applied in places, as for instance in the magnificent G sharp minor passacaglia (Prelude No. 12): Nikolaieva also allows a little rubato here, but her restraint makes it more telling. Papadopoulos can also be just a touch too emphatic for my taste—the left hand accents in the E flat Prelude (No. 19) are a good example, and for the same reason I don't like his left hand doubling of the right's E flats in bar 13 (0'14''). More importantly, he seems only intermittently to have penetrated to what Nikolaieva calls the music's ''inner world''. Intermittently is better than never at all of course, and I'm sure I'd have been happy with Papadopoulos's set if it wasn't for the Nikolaieva. But here it is, and even at this early stage I've a feeling its going to figure prominently on my records of the year list.'