PLAYLIST #1 ~ TRACK 38–9
Konstantin Scherbakov, piano
Webern’s only serious rival as the most haunted-looking twentieth-century composer
So much for our American trilogy of composers (Cowell – Cage – Nancarrow) continuing the piano tradition by other means.
Not everybody had the opportunity to participate in these fantastic discoveries off the beaten track. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–75), for example, had the lousy luck to have the monstrous Joseph Stalin, a musical philistine fascinated by artists, watching, or having watched, his every move, his life as an autonomous human being utterly compromised as a result. Not that a communist such as Nancarrow would have found Hooverite America really the land of the free, of course, mid-century USA being perfectly capable of allowing paranoid whackjobs of its own to assume positions of great power – though the penalties for non-conformity tended to be less extreme than those emanating from the Kremlin.
That to one side, our next music takes us back to Moscow, and also back to Bach, the inspiration for Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues, opus 87. Begun (it is possible to be precise) on 10 October 1950, they were completed by 25 February 1951. This was good going for a man labouring also on the epic tenth symphony, one of his bleakest and best-regarded, throughout the period. 1950 was the bicentenary of JS Bach’s death, celebrated in Leipzig, his final resting place, with a festival and a piano competition at which Shostakovich, on one of his rare forays abroad, acted as a judge. There he heard for the first time a young Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolaeva, who when asked by the jury which of Bach’s ’48’ she would play asked them to pick any they wished – she had prepared them all. She won not only the competition but the permanent admiration of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated composer, who on returning home began this, his own set of preludes and fugues, with her playing in mind. She would be associated with them thereafter, making three recordings and even suffering a fatal stroke during a performance of the cycle. “There is everything” in them, she said, “from the tragic, dark, and presence of evil, to happiness and smiles.” It’s a perfect and true description.
Shostakovich’s son Maxim regards the work as his father’s finest, though in style it’s less than fully characteristic. From the first note we are transported to a world far from that of the symphonies and concertos, and only with the eighth prelude – the fifteenth piece altogether – do we say for the first time “ah … Shostakovich”. In many of the pieces – for instance the very first fugue – he seems content just to tweak Bach a little for the twentieth century. But this is plenty if you can pull off the trick this well and – more to the point – to such consistently beautiful effect. You’d imagine such conservatism would endear the work to the Soviet authorities and of course you’d be wrong. It was branded with the moronic catch-all condemnation ‘formalism’, a term whose only discernible meaning would seem to be ‘not concerned with some aspect, however trifling, of the revolution or Stalin’s great reforms’.
The light-as-air prelude of this seventh pair illustrates to some extent the sort-of-Bach-though-of-course-not-really aspect to which I’ve referred. The diaphanous fugue (I can’t improve on the sleevenote to this fine CD) is just transcendently gorgeous throughout. What it specifically transcends, I like to dream, is everything Stalin and his ilk stood and continue, in the present day, to stand for. Revenge is a dish best served – aesthetically.