Dmitri Shostakovich
24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87

Media Review / Comparison

2011-11-28 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-07-05 — New standard layout applied
2014-10-31 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-23 — Brushed up for better readability



No, I’m not going to do a track-by-track comparison of two interpretations of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975): I don’t have the scores, and I’m not a pianist, hence I’m not going to try the impossible!

So – here’s my short comment on two recordings of Shostakovich’s op.87. I think both Ashkenazy and Melnikov offer good interpretations, though my preference goes to the latter. I ran into Ashkenazy’s interpretation a couple years ago. At that time, was slightly disappointed by the composition — probably because I didn’t spend enough time with this music. This changed when Melnikov caught my attention through his recording of the Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin, together with Isabelle Faust (see Beethoven, Sonata for Piano & Violin op.12/3 and postings referred to therein). Soon after I started listening to that recording, his interpretation of Shostakovich’s op.87 was released, and I purchased it immediately — a good decision, I think!

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Ashkenazy, CD cover

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Decca 466 066-2  (stereo, 2 CDs); ℗ / © 1999

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Ashkenazy, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Vladimir Ashkenazy recorded the Preludes and Fugues op.87 in 1998.

The Interpretation

Ashkenazy’s playing is definitely softer than Melnikov’s; he appears to use more pedal, he focuses on the big phrases, keeps the music flowing, tries to capture the mood, the atmosphere of these pieces. He is sometimes substantially faster than Melnikov — at the expense of some clarity (the sound recording unfortunately does not help, the sound is fairly central, dense, compact), and occasionally I feel that the tempo should be controlled more tightly… Compared to Melnikov, this sounds like more of a “traditional” interpretation — though there probably isn’t much of a tradition with this rarely played music.

Total duration:2h21’13”
Recommendation:Yes, but…

Alexander Melnikov

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Melnikov, CD cover

Shostakovich: The Preludes & Fugues

Alexander Melnikov

harmonia mundi France, HMC 902019.20 (stereo, 2 CDs + 1 DVD); ℗ / © 2010

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Melnikov, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Alexander Melnikov recorded the Preludes and Fugues op.87 in 2008/2009; he is also playing parts of this cycle on his current concert tour. Compared to Ashkenazy, this sounds more analytical, more articulated. It has more focus on details and small phrases, to the benefit of those short pieces!

The Interpretation

The tempo differs substantially between the two interpretations. More often than not, Melnikov prefers a slower tempo (but the converse also happens). He appears to play with less pedal, and his playing is crystal-clear. His often sharp attack reminds me of Glenn Gould’s playing. That’s just by the sound, but without the latter’s extravaganza or focus on presenting his very personal view of a composition. Melnikov explores the full width of the piano sound, but (in my opinion) doesn’t try to demonstrate his technical abilities, or to exhibit his personal reading of these pieces. He remains a servant to Shostakovich’s music. In terms of personality, and of how they approach the interpretation of a composition, Melnikov and Gould could hardly be more different, I think.

The DVD contains Prelude and Fugue no.24 in D minor (which did not fit onto the two CDs) plus an interesting interview (23’15”, English, optionally with German or French captions) that Andreas Staier (well-known player and teacher of the harpsichord and the fortepiano) did with Alexander Melnikov (who is also playing samples as part of the interview). In a section of the video one can see Melnikov play the Fugue no.7 in A major and parts of the Fugue no.5 in D major in the great hall of the Moscow conservatory. The CD recording, as well as the interview happened in a studio in Berlin, though. One can also find parts of the interview in the promotion video on YouTube.

Total duration:2h30’48”

Comments from the Original Blog Site, 2012

Hi Rolf: thank you very much for this. I will be especially interested in listening to Melnikov’s interpretation of no.24 in D minor, one of my favourites. Are you familiar with this Gilels’ recording from 1955?
It would be interesting to hear from you how you might compare the two…

Incidentally, for the sake of interest and comparison, here’s a performance of no. 24 from Tatiana Nikolayeva, to whom the set of work was dedicated:

My Response

Thanks, Karen, for those links!

Tatiana Nikolayeva

I have listened to the interpretation of Prelude & Fugue no.24 by Tatiana Nikolayeva (Татьяна Петровна Николаева) — impressive, and how even more impressive she must have played these pieces in the 50’s of last century! Sure, her playing has lost a lot of subtlety, I suspect: one can see her age by her hands. It’s a miracle that she can still play so well. Technically, Ashkenazy is probably better, but in comparison, her interpretation left the bigger impression on me!

Emil Gilels

Emil Gilels’ interpretation — well, that’s a different league! That was at the peak of Gilels’ career and abilities. The YouTube comment is certainly right in calling this titanic—it is monumental! If I were to rate this recording, I would compare it to Melnikov rather than Ashkenazy. However, it isn’t easy to make a fair comparison: technically, there are 55 years of evolution between these two recordings. Plus, Gilels has met Shostakovich and lived in the Sovjet period; Melnikov was two when Shostakovich died. He was 10 when Gorbatchev proclaimed Glasnost and Perestroika. He did spend a lot of time and effort in studying the sources, to find out about the circumstances under which op.87 was written.

Apart from that, the two pianists use a completely different approach to these compositions. Gilels’ interpretation is an explosion of free-flowing emotions and force. Melnikov is more controlled, with more focus on transparency and clarity. As stated above, I feel that he tries hard to remain “objective”; Gilels is definitely much more subjective. I haven’t seen the score, but I haven’t heard any other pianist make such a rallentando towards the end of the Prelude. In the ff and fff parts the recording equipment clearly produces distortions (as does the piano!).

Superior recording technique may have helped in achieving some of the clarity in Melnikov’s recording. Still, in his interpretation I admire his control over the dynamics, how he can constantly build up volume in the Fugue, up to the culmination (where one can actually hear him moan!). I think both are great interpretations; both deserve a top rating, even though they are so much different!

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