Melnikov delivers a memorable afternoon of rare Shostakovich at Mandel Hall

Mon Jan 29, 2018 at 4:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alexander Melnikov performed Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall.
Alexander Melnikov performed Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall.

In 1950 Dimitri Shostakovich traveled to Leipzig for musical activities marking the 200th anniversary of Bach’s passing. In addition to partaking in concerts, he judged a Bach piano competition in which the first-prize winner was a young compatriot, Tatiana Nikolayeva.

The pilgrimage to Bach’s birthplace, combined with Nikolayeva’s playing, made a strong impression on Shostakovich. He subsequently composed his 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano.

Performances of the complete set are rare. Kudos to the University of Chicago Presents series for giving us the Full Dmitri, performed by Alexander Melnikov Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall.

Though among his lesser-known works even today, Shostakovich’s Op. 87 stands as one of his greatest achievements. Like its model, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Shostakovich wrote a Prelude and Fugue in every key of the chromatic scale. While the style is outwardly Bachian in its structure and contrapuntal rigor, the music subtly, elliptically but inexorably, keeps making individual turns.

Composed very quickly at a time when his more public works were under heavy scrutiny by the Soviet cultural apparatchiks for any form of ideological deviation, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Shostakovich poured himself into this project. There is a remarkably varied universe of style, mood and expression contained within the two and one-half hours of Op. 87; in many ways, the 24 Preludes and Fugues are the richest, most personal and, indeed, the most beautiful of all of Shostakovich’s music.

During her lifetime, Tatiana Nikolayeva virtually owned this music and was renowned for her interpretations, recording it three times and spending much of her life performing it around the world. (She was fatally stricken in 1993 while playing this music on stage in San Francisco.) Shostakovich recorded most of Op. 87 as well, and these recordings, available online, make a fascinating historical document.

Alexander Melnikov is bringing Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues to a new generation of audiences. His recording on the Hyperion label has won wide acclaim and many awards, and his powerful, communicative playing on Sunday showed him the leading artist to continue the Nikolayeva tradition. 

The flurry of restive audience noises faded as Melnikov began playing the opening Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major with its simple, stately elegance. And for the next three hours (with two well-placed intermissions) one listened captivated–not just by the near-perfect polish and execution of Melnikov’s playing but by the extraordinary range and depth of Shostakovich’s music.

The Russian pianist takes a somewhat straightforward view of this work—firmly projected, with contrapuntal voicings bracing and clear. The technical assurance and architectural command were consistently impressive. There was never a doubt that Melnikov knew exactly where he was going in this vast cycle and how and when he was going to get there.

At times one wanted a degree more dynamic subtlety and expressive nuance. In the early going, especially, the playing seemed more centered on muscle and projection, missing some of the Preludes’ inner poetry.

But if Melnikov didn’t always explore the half-tones of the music, he surely conveyed its variety: the heavy ominous chords of the Prelude No. 4 in E minor, the cool, cascading Fugue No. 17 in A major, the Bach-y Prelude No. 10 in C-sharp minor and the joyous bravura of its ensuing Fugue, dazzlingly played.

Melnikov was also impressive in his transitions between the two sections. Often Shostakovich begins his fugues on a fragment of the preceding prelude and the pianist always made those musical connections clear.

As the long afternoon unwinded, Melnikov’s playing seemed to become richer and more searching, and he was at his finest in the closing set. He brought a stark, otherworldly quality to the Prelude No. 20 in C minor; rendered with a natural rubato, the pleading right-hand phrases set against a grim, inexorable bass, the effect was as if he was making up the music on the spot. The ensuing spacious fugue was just as striking, growing organically in punch and intensity.

Melnikov rose to the challenge of the concluding Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D minor–the longest work of the set and the summit of Op. 87–in masterful style. The dark, sepulchral chords and bleak rumination of the Prelude conveyed the sense of a solitary figure in a desolated landscape–much like the forlorn wind solos of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Melnikov began the epic final fugue with uncommon delicacy and built the climactic double fugue to a coda of massive sonorous power, unmistakably conveying its angry defiance and hard-won triumph.

A truly memorable event, played with great dedication, focus and understanding by a gifted pianist who deserves to be much more widely known.

The University of Chicago Presents series continues 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Logan Center with eighth blackbird and Amadinda performing music of Ligeti, Reich and Holló.; 773-702-2787

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One Response to “Melnikov delivers a memorable afternoon of rare Shostakovich at Mandel Hall”

  1. Posted Jan 30, 2018 at 5:14 pm by Tod Verklärung

    Thank you for reviewing an extraordinary event that the Chicago Tribune seems to have bypassed in favor of Jennifer Koh and the Minnesota Orchestra. As wonderful as those artists are, one would have thought that one of Shostakovich’s greatest works (and one so rarely performed) might have taken precendence.

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