Russian Piano Masterpieces: Shostakovich
- Extra Reading
At one point in his life, Shostakovich considered the career of a concert pianist. He was talented enough to become a Soviet competitor at the international Chopin Competition of 1927, but he was struck down with acute appendicitis, and he had to leave with only a diploma rather than a major prize. Whether his pain and disappointment soured his relations with the piano we cannot be sure, it is astonishing that his piano music studiously avoids the virtuosity he had assiduously cultivated as a young performer. Almost all his piano writing is in some way experimental, conceptual, challenging the pianist to make sense of piano writing that often seems ungrateful, not unlike Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which we heard in the first lecture of this series.
Even so, Shostakovich’s monumental cycle of Preludes and Fugues stands at the very core of his output. Written “for the desk drawer” in his most difficult years, following a second round of official criticism, it often rejoices in the very “formalism” he was accused of. Following the example of J.S. Bach, Shostakovich offers us twenty-four strictly constructed fugues in all the keys, each preceded by a free-flowing prelude. The set takes us on a fascinating journey, beginning with near-pastiches of Bach, into a world where Russian folk song can meet Jewish cantillation, and where Baroque idioms meet modernism, with extremes of emotion that can rival any of Shostakovich’s symphonies.
Image © Deutsche Fotothek CC BY-SA
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