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
2021-02-14 — Reworked from scratch, expanded, added additional recordings, table, etc.




Introduction

This is a second, completely revised edition of a posting which I started in November 2011. It (still) covers the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), and it still includes my original two recordings by Vladimir Ashkenazy (1998) and Alexander Melnikov (2009). Similar to the initial version, I’m not venturing a detailed discussion of every prelude and every fugue, let alone in all of the recordings discussed below. However, several factors brought me to rewrite the posting:

  • In connection with the review of a concert performance by Igor Levit in Zurich, on 2017-06-08 (which I’m not discussing any further here), I purchased the sheet music (Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, 1955a; Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, 1955b), hence now have more experience and a tool to check performances against the composer’s notation.
  • As stated, I retain the two recordings by Vladimir Ashkenazy (1998) and Alexander Melnikov (2009) from the first version of this post. However, as an exception, I followed the suggestion by a commenter by adding the recording by Boris Petrushansky (1992/1993). I usually don’t have the time and the resources to do that. However, from listening to track previews I sensed that it is at least substantially different from the two versions I then had. And contrast often helps in putting things into perspective.

Rewriting and Expansion

  • As this step required a rewrite already, I felt that I might just as well add the recording by Konstantin Scherbakov (1999), an artist that I have encountered and appreciate. I heard him in live concerts on several occasions over the recent years.
  • Especially with larger comparisons (many tracks / movements, and/or many interpretations / recordings), I like working with tables which serve to visualize my ratings, as well as to allow readers to compare timings / tempo choices. In the process of constructing such a comparison table, I found one error in the metronome marks in the score, plus substantial deviations by all or most artists.
  • With these unresolved (unresolvable) discrepancies, I realized that I could not simply refer to the composer’s notation (in particular, the metronome numbers). I needed to look for an additional reference. Luckily, such a reference exists: an early recording by Tatiana Nikolayeva (Melodiya, 1962). The composer not only dedicated his op.87 to this pianist, but he also was present during the recording sessions, checked and approved the recording as the valid one—see below for additional details.

The Composition

The year 1950 was the bicentennial of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s (1685 – 1750) death. On this occasion, Dmitri Shostakovich was sent to Leipzig, as cultural ambassador. He was one of the jurors at the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition. One of the contestants at that competition was the 26-years old Russian Tatiana Nikolayeva, who came prepared to perform any of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier upon request. Tatiana Nikolayeva won the competition. And she inspired Shostakovich to compose his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87 (the complete set was composed between 1950-10-10 and 1951-02-25).

In his sets, Bach followed a strict tonal order (C major, C minor, C♯ major, C♯ minor, D major, etc.). In his op.87, Shostakovich rather followed the circle of fifths, alternating major scales with the parallel minor scales (C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, etc.). Not just in the concept of Prelude-Fugue pairs for every key, Shostakovich follows Bach’s example, but he also alludes to actual themes from Bach’s compositions.


The Artists

I’ll start with the “reference artist” — the others are sorted by their last name:

Tatiana Nikolayeva

The Russian pianist Tatiana Petrovna Nikolayeva (1924 – 1993) was one of the pre-eminent pianists of her time. She also was a composer and a teacher.

Nikolayeva visited Shostakovich several times when op.87 was written, and she also is the dedicatee to the set. And, of course, she premiered Shostakovich’s op.87 in Leningrad, on 1952-12-23. While the composer himself never recorded the entire set, there are four complete recordings with Tatiana Nikolayeva: the first one from 1962, followed by additional sets in 1987, 1990, and a filmed performance from 1992.

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Born 1937 (in Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, Russia), Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy is a pupil of Lev Oborin (1907 – 1974). Jointly with the British pianist John Ogdon (1937 – 1989), he won the first prize at the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In 1972, Ashkenazy acquired the Icelandic citizenship, and since 1989 he lives in Switzerland, in Meggen, at the Lake of Lucerne. Ashkenazy recorded these Preludes and Fugues in 1996 – 1998.

Alexander Melnikov

All pianists in this comparison are native Russians. Alexander Markovich Melnikov was born 1973. He graduated at the Moscow conservatory, under Lev Naumov (1925 – 2005), himself a pupil of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus (1888 – 1964). Alexander Melnikov not only is an excellent concert pianist, but he has also made numerous recordings. Several of these (chamber music performances of works by Beethoven and Brahms) have been discussed in this blog. Melnikov recorded Shostakovich’s op.87 in 2008 / 2009.

Boris Petrushansky

Another one of Lev Naumov’s pupils, and of course another Russian, is Boris Petrushansky (*1949). He now lives in Italy, teaching at the Imola Piano Academy. His students include successful pianists such as Olga Kern (*1975, see here for a concert review) and Federico Colli (*1988, see here for a concert review), just to mention those which I witnessed in concert. Petrushansky recorded the op.87 in 1992 / 1993.

Konstantin Scherbakov

A third one of Lev Naumov’s pupils, Konstantin Scherbakov (*1963 in Barnaul, Siberia / Russia) has been teaching a the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts) since 1998. He is one of the most frequently featured pianists in my blog (as I’m living near Zurich, I’m able to attend many of his recitals). Scherbakov’s most successful pupil is Yulianna Avdeeva (*1985), winner of the 16th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, 2010. Konstantin Scherbakov made his acclaimed recording of Shostakovich’s op.87 in 1999.

Oxana Shevchenko

All of the above pianists recorded Shostakovich’s complete op.87. While I’m at it, I wanted to mention all recordings of op.87 in my collection. So I’m also including the single recording of Prelude and Fugue in G♯ minor, op.87/12 by the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko (*1987 in Almaty), a part of her debut CD from 2010. She, too, is one of the most frequently featured artists in this blog—mostly because I had the opportunity to witness her in numerous recitals. I have also discussed some of her CD recordings.


Comparison Table

As mentioned above, I am not discussing all of the 48 movements (242 tracks total) in detail, and piece by piece. I did, however, listen to all of the recordings in their entirety (more than once, actually). I did this movement by movement, comparing all recordings of the prelude in C major, then all recordings of the fugue in C major, etc., and I rated every track (★ .. ★★★★★, as usual), and I summarized this in the table below. In addition, I collected the durations of all tracks and included them in the same table. For additional comments on the table see below.

Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87 — Timings & Ratings
Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87 — Timings & Ratings

The History of the Table — And of the Comparison

The above table evolved in several steps:

Simple Tempo Comparison

I started off with the newer recordings alone (Ashkenazy, Melnikov, Petrushansky, Scherbakov), and I noted substantial differences in the timings, i.e., in the tempo. In order to put those tempo differences into perspective, I thought I’d compare these with the composer’s tempo (metronome) annotations:

Checking Against the Score

Measuring 4 x 48 metronome readings would be extremely laborious (and the accuracy questionable, given rubato, etc.). So, I simply calculated the theoretical durations using the metronome number in the score (Shostakovich specified one for every single movement), the meter, and the number of bars. An example: Prelude in C major: 67 bars, 3/4, crotchet=92 yields 201 crotchets @ 92 crotchets per minute, i.e., 198 / 92 * 60 = 131 seconds. I did of course account for explicit metronome and/or meter changes within a ny movement. These values are listed in the first numeric column in the table above.

One caveat with this method: the calculation does not account for any ritardando (prescribed or deliberate) in the final bar(s), nor any ritenuto / a tempo moments that are found in many movements. Also, recordings typically start and end with a few (1 – 5) seconds of silence. With this, the calculated numbers can be expected to be too short in general.

Differences / Errors?

Still, it turned out that this opened up more questions than it solved:

  • only in 5 out of 48 movements, the calculated time was slightly above the average of the actual performance times;
  • in 17 cases, the calculated time was at least 20% shorter (the tempo 25% faster) than the average performance (red numbers)
  • out of these, six of the calculated times were between 30 and 40% shorter (the tempo 45 – 65% faster) than the average performance (red numbers + orange background)
  • In one single case (fugue in C major), the calculated time was almost 50% longer than the average (the tempo 35% faster): in all likelihood a misprint in the sheet music. The score states split time (2/2, alla breve), crotchet = 92. This would be unbearably slow for a Moderato pace with alla breve signature. For split time, one usually expects the metronome to be specified for half notes, i.e., 1/2 = 92. With this, the calculated time would be 139 seconds — 27% shorter than the actual average: a big, but not at all extreme deviation.

Adding a Reference Recording

Obviously, Shostakovich’s metronome markings are to be read with a grain of salt. So, I decided to look for Tatiana Nikolayeva’s 1962 recording, which not only was done close(st) to the time of the composition, but also / in addition with the composer’s supervision and explicit approval. These times are listed in the column between the calculated durations and the actual average duration (the above description is slightly incorrect, in that the average now includes all recorded durations, i.e., including Nikolayeva’s).

I believe that also Tatiana Nikolayeva’s timings need to be viewed with some reservation: Shostakovich obviously tolerated tempo diviations, especially some substantially slower tempi, see below, but the notation has never been corrected to reflect that reference recording (especially slower tempi). So, one may conclude that the tempo annotations in the score are merely a rough guideline.

Tempo “Ratings”

All measured times (track durations) have been put into relation with the average duration of all real performances (ignoring the calculated values). Red background indicates shorter-that-average times, i.e., faster performances, blue background stands for longer-than-average times, i.e., slower performances. These colors are not meant to be ratings—they merely indicate whether and where an artist is slower or faster than the average performance.

Lastly: from the color coding in the timing columns, one can see at a glance whether an artist is

  • mostly fast(er) — example: Ashkenazy
  • typically close to the average — example: Melnikov
  • mostly / often slower than average — example: Petrushansky

In my opinion, it is far more important whether an artist matches the composer’s words in the tempo annotation (moderato, allegro, allegro molto, etc.) than whether the numeric annotation (or any average tempo) is reproduced exactly.

Ratings

As outlined above, tempo deviations only had an effect on the ★ .. ★★★★★ ratings where they were affecting the intended character of the movement (as derived from the composer’s annotation). Then, of course, aspects such as clarity, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, etc. were also taken into account. Naturally, the “star” ratings are all subjective and my personal opinion.

Also: remember that in media reviews I use the iTunes (now: Apple Music) scheme of five rating levels (★ .. ★★★★★). There are no half-star ratings in this scheme, hence all differentiation is in whole-star steps down from ★★★★★. In this scheme, 3-star ratings aren’t really bad. In fact: to me, none of the tracks in these recordings feels “bad”, “completely off”, let alone “failed”.

In other words: compared to my ratings in concert, the rating differences may appear exaggerated. For example, ★★★★ vs. ★★★★★ might just as well represent “a slight preference for the 5-star recording”. On the other hand, for so many (48) tracks & ratings per recording, the resulting average gives plenty of differentiation. It can also be regarded more reliable: the occasional arbitrary judgement will have little or no effect on the end result.


Notes on the Performances / Recordings

For Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alexander Melnikov, I “inherited” / adapted the comments from the first version of this posting. The comments about the newly added recordings (Tatiana Nikolayeva, Boris Petrushansky, Konstantin Scherbakov) are kept short, given the information in the table above. From this, my personal preferences should be obvious.

Tatiana Nikolayeva (1962)

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Nikolayeva, CD cover

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23

Tatiana Nikolayeva (op.87 recorded 1962-01)
Kurt Masur / Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig (Tchaikovsky)

Doremi DHR-7991-3 (2 CDs + DVD); DLC Restoration © 2010
Booklet 4 pp., en

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Nikolayeva, CD, UPC-A barcode
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The DVD contains a live video recording from a concert at the Gewandhaus Leipzig in 1990, featuring Tatiana Nikolayeva performing the Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), with Kurt Masur (1927 – 2015) conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Sound

From the point-of-view of recording technique, Tatiana Nikolayeva’s is OK (especially considering that it was done in 1962). It is stereo, but presumably the microphone placement not very close to the piano (rather centered sound, in general). The sound is fine otherwise—slightly matte, not really brilliant. Especially the bass register is very dark, if not often somber.

Interpretation

The recording gives the impression of a rather robust, often handsome touch. It is clean in the articulation, but not focused on elegance, extroverted brilliance, or for refinement / subtlety in the soft segments. In some ways, this often resembles the composer’s own interpretations (of others of his works), some of which can be found on YouTube.

Some particular points:

  • The long, sustained chords in the Prelude No.3 in G major look like the ideal opportunity to use the middle (sostenuto) pedal. Nikolayeva uses the sustain pedal, causing some blurring in the top (descant) voice.
  • The same applies to Prelude No.20 in C minor.
  • The pianist uses remarkable, distinct agogics in Prelude No.5 in D major
  • Prelude No.7 in A major: sustain pedal for most, if not all punctuated crotchet periods (4 per bar), sometimes more (sustain pedal legato is also noticeable in Fugue No.18 in F minor). In the same vein: very nice, singing sonority in the Fugue No.7 in A major, annotated legato sempre.
  • The Prelude No.19 in E♭ major features a resting E♭ octave in the bass (left hand) across bars 14 – 38, and again bars 68 – 88. It is impossible to hear the string resonating over such long durations. Shostakovich interrupts the ties in bars 21, 28, and 78. Interestingly, Nikolayeva does not “refresh” the octave at these points, such that the octave sound vanishes.

Tempo

None of Nikolayeva’s tempi is extreme. Compared to the average of all artists, she is more often (moderately) faster, rather than slower. Very often, she is close to the composer’s annotation, but at the same time, there are many instances where she is distinctly slower. Some particular points:

  • Clearly the fastest performance in the Fugue No.1 in C major—essentially 1/2 = 92, i.e., a definitive confirmation that the annotation in the score (crotchet = 92) is in error.
  • Nikolayeva’s performance is also clearly faster than all others in Fugue No.18 in F minor—slightly faster than the composer’s annotation.
  • In a few exceptions, Nikolayeva offers the slowest of the performances, most notably in the Prelude No.12 in G♯ minor and in the Fugue No.13 in F♯ major (both along with Petrushansky), as well as in the Fugue No.22 in G minor (tempo 70% slower than annotated). Fugue No.16 in B♭ minor also features almost half of the annotated tempo.

Rating?

Given that the composer supervised and approved this recording, I can’t really give a rating here. The recording definitely is the authoritative reference for this music—a must-have for Shostakovich enthusiasts and artists. The one obvious, possible exception consists of the select movements that the composer himself recorded—which I have not listened to. However, I don’t think that the reference status of this recording implies that it is the sole model that artists should follow. It should merely be a guide or example for a possible interpretation, especially in cases where an artist is in doubt about how to approach a given piece.

Results, Numbers?

As stated, I’m not rating Tatiana Nikolayeva’s performance, nor do I want to compare it with any of the more recent recordings in words. As a historic document, this recording stands by itself and deserves its special place in the performance history of op.87. That said: even without the historic context, the recording does not sound antiquated. It can well stand on its own, next to any of the more recent interpretations, both in terms of recording technique / sound, as well as in terms of interpretation and performance.

Overall duration: 2h 33′ 51″ (48 tracks)
Remarks: Tatiana Nikolayeva is closest to the average in terms of tempo / duration: less than 1% faster than the average (based on the overall timing).


Vladimir Ashkenazy (1998)

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Ashkenazy, CD cover

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87

Vladimir Ashkenazy (recorded 1996 – 1998)

Decca 466 066-2 (stereo, 2 CDs); ℗ / © 1999
Booklet 32 pp., en/de

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Ashkenazy, UPC-A barcode
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Comments

The above comparison table indicates that Ashkenazy’s tempo rarely is below the average—and if so, just a tad. Rather, he often tends towards a faster-than-average pace. Examples:

  • Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C major (pretty much in agreement with Nikolayeva, and definitely justified for the Fugue),
  • No.6 in B minor,
  • No.8 in F♯ minor,
  • No.13 in F♯ major (particularly pronounced),
  • No.16 in B♭ minor,
  • No.19 in E♭ major (particularly pronounced), and
  • No.20 in F♯ minor.

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 recording technique unfortunately does not help—the sound is fairly central, dense, compact). Occasionally I feel that the tempo should be controlled more tightly. Compared to Melnikov, this sounds like more of a “traditional” interpretation. That last paragraph is adapted from the first version of the comparison.

Results, Numbers…

Average Rating: 3.44
Overall duration: 2h 21′ 39″ (48 tracks)
Remarks: the overall duration is almost 9% below the average of the actual performances (based on the overall timing). In other words: overall, the average tempo is almost 10% above the median value—the fastest performance overall.


Alexander Melnikov (2009)

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Melnikov, CD cover

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87

Alexander Melnikov (recorded 2008 – 2009)

harmonia mundi France, HMC 902019.20 (stereo, 3 CDs + 1 DVD-side); ℗ / © 2010
Booklet 28 pp., fr/en/de

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Melnikov, UPC-A barcode
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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 (*1955, 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 watch 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 were done in a studio in Berlin, though. One can also find excerpts from the interview in the promotion video on YouTube.

Comments

Relative to the average of the five full recordings, Melnikov’s looks like the most moderate and well-balanced, tempo-wise. He sometimes is below average, sometimes above—but never extreme. The following two paragraphs are adapted from the first version of the comparison, featuring only Ashkenazy and Melnikov:

More often than not, Melnikov prefers a slower tempo than Ashkenazy (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 extreme personal views. 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.

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!

Results, Numbers…

Average Rating: 4.79
Overall duration: 2h 21′ 39″ (48 tracks)
Remarks: the overall duration is 2.5% below the average of the actual performances (based on the overall timing), close to the average. Among the 4 recent performances, Melnikov’s is closest to the average duration—the “golden middle”?

Along with Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation (see below), this is my favorite recording. If Melnikov ranks very slightly behind Scherbakov, then that is primarily due to an occasional tendency towards a hard touch, driving the instrument close to the point where the sound starts to be distorted. However, this might just as well be a matter of how the instrument is regulated, the intonation.


Boris Petrushansky (1993)

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Petrushansky, CD cover

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87

Boris Petrushansky (recorded 1992 – 1993)

Dynamic S 2039/1-3 (stereo, 3 CDs); ℗ / © 2001
Booklet 16 pp., it/en

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Petrushansky, CD, EAN-13 barcode
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Comments

Only very, very rarely, Boris Petrushansky uses a (slightly) faster-than-average tempo. If we compare just the recent interpretations, that’s just in the Prelude No.3 in G major (at times feels a tad pushed), and in the Fugue No.24 in D minor.

In the overwhelming majority of the cases, however, Petrushansky tends towards distinctly slower tempo, often even vastly slower, up to half the composer’s annotated tempo, e.g., Prelude No.1 in C major, Fugue No.6 in B minor, Prelude and Fugue No.13 in F♯ major, No.14 in E♭ minor, No.16 in B♭ minor, No.19 in E♭ major, No.20 in C minor, and No.23 in F major. Often, this not only feel slow (overstretching long phrases / melodies / themes), but it also often does not match the character of the piece, as per the composer’s annotation verbiage.

That said: as far as I can tell, Boris Petrushansky’s performance is of course technically flawless. However, to me, this does not compensate for the fact that at least in his tempo choices, Petrushansky is the farthest away from the composer’s intent.

Results, Numbers…

Average Rating: 3.58
Overall duration: 3h 5′ 21″ (48 tracks)
Remarks: the overall duration is almost 20% above the average of the actual performances (based on the overall timing). In other words: the tempo is substantially slower on average—the slowest of the recordings overall, by a large margin.


Konstantin Scherbakov (1999)

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Scherbakov, CD cover

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87

Konstantin Scherbakov (recorded 1999)

Naxos 8.554745-46 (stereo, 2 CDs); ℗ / © 2000
Booklet 12 pp., en/de/fr

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes, Scherbakov, CD, UPC-A barcode
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Comments

Having experienced Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretations of compositions between Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Lyapunov, Godowsky, and others, it did not surprise me to see him rank at the top of these interpretations / recordings. With (perhaps) one single exception, this recording lives up to (or above) the very high expectations that I put into it. Amazingly, Konstantin Scherbakov made this complete recording within a mere four days, 1999-06-15 through 1999-06-18.

This comes as close to an ideal recording of Shostakovich’s op.87 as I can possibly imagine: it has all the good qualities of Alexander Melnikov’s recording: considerate, with intellectual and musical clarity, devoid of extremes and exaggerations. This is combined with Scherbakov’s superb quality of touch and dynamic control and use of the instrument’s sonority (exploiting, but never surpassing the instrument’s sound capacities). In his excellent articulation, phrasing, and transparency, the ability to maintain clarity in polyphonic structures, this performance is hard to beat.

Some Specifics

  • The one (in my view) little snag in this recording is Konstantin Scherbakov’s take on the Fugue No.1 in C major: he appears to aim to match the annotated metronome number (quaver = 92)—for which there is (in my view) no doubt that it is in error, see above. With this, that fugue not only feels very / too slow (slower than all others), but it also no longer matches the Moderato annotation.
  • In Fugue No.17 in A♭ major, both Alexander Melnikov and Konstantin Scherbakov clearly use the shift pedal for soft / dolce segments, even though Shostakovich does not specify una corda (he actually never does, throughout op.87).
  • In the same fugue, Melnikov appears to use the sustain pedal (for best sonority, presumably), while Konstantin Scherbakov uses little or no sustain pedal—a characteristic trait in many of his interpretations.
  • One example of Konstantin Scherbakov’s excellent use of agogics is in the Prelude No.22 in G minor.

Results, Numbers…

Average Rating: 4.85
Overall duration: 2h 23′ 16″ (48 tracks)
Remarks: the overall duration is 7.5% below the average of the actual performances—almost the fastest performance overall. I see this recording at a level of (or slightly above) the one by Alexander Melnikov (see above): both are clearly excellent performances, and highly recommended.


Oxana Shevchenko (2010)

Oxana Shevchenko — Debut CD 2010; CD cover

Piano Works by Ravel, Shostakovich, Liszt, Mozart, and Thea Musgrave

Oxana Shevchenko

Delphian DCD34061 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2010
Booklet 8 pp., en

Oxana Shevchenko — Debut CD; UPC-A barcode
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This is the artist’s debut CD, which she recorded after winning the First Prize at the Scottish International Piano Competition in 2010.

Comments

Adding this recording of just Prelude and Fugue No.12 in G♯ minor alone may seem superfluous. I kept it in the comparison not just because it is in my collection, but also because I think the artist and the performance deserve it. It is part of her debut CD—an important step in her career. The two Shostakovich movements on that CD are impressive. They don’t need to hide behind any of the other performances discussed in this comparison.


Closing Remarks

When I first (coincidentally) ran into Ashkenazy’s interpretation a couple years ago, I was not particularly impressed (if not even slightly disappointed) by the composition. I probably didn’t spend enough time with this music. This changed when Melnikov’s recording was released—I purchased it immediately. And I did not regret it!

Revisiting Shostakovich’s op.87 now, with two additional recordings (Petrushansky, Scherbakov) and Tatiana Nikolayeva’s reference set added in (plus a concert experience and the acquisition of the score) deepened my connection with this composition. It also confirmed my earlier assessment, while adding knowledge about additional, highly valuable recordings. My recommendations from this review / comparison are obvious:

  • One or both of Alexander Melnikov‘s and Konstantin Scherbakov‘s recordings are strong recommendations
  • Tatiana Nikolayeva‘s reference recording is a must-have for anyone with a deeper interest in op.87

Omissions?

As always, my reviews are fragmentary: it is impossible to cover a substantial fraction of the recordings of a given work out there. Still, there might be people pointing out what seem to be obvious omissions—which I have left out, primarily because I’m limiting my reviews to recordings that I have in my collection, as “hard copy”. Streamed performances, YouTube videos, and concert performances fall outside of that scope. Some obvious “omissions”:

  • the composer’s own recordings of (at least) 8 Preludes and Fugues from op.87, see below.
  • Emil Gilels’ YouTube performance of Prelude and Fugue No.24 in D minor (and possibly other recordings with that artist) referred to in the comment below.
  • the 1987, 1990, and 1992 recordings with Tatiana Nikolayeva. The artist’s 1992 (video) is also referred to in the same comment below.
  • concert performances, such as the one with the Russian-German artist Igor Levit (*1987 in Nizhny Novgorod) that I witnessed in Zurich, on 2017-06-08. Comparing live performances with studio recordings would be unfair.


The Composer’s Own Recording(s)

Dmitri Shostakovich never recorded the entire op.87. However, there is a video (audio + still image) of him performing the Preludes and Fugues No.2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 16, 20, and 23 (in the sequence No.5 in D major — No.23 in F major — No.3 in G major — No.16 in B♭ minor — No.6 in B minor — No.7 in A major — No.20 in C minor — No.2 in A minor). None of this was included in the above comparison, as I’m only considering recordings on audio CDs.


Score / Sheet Music

  • Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich. (1955a). 24 Preludes And Fugues : For Piano : Op. 87 (Vol. 1). Leeds Music.Edition Sikorski ED. Nr. 2124; Musikverlag Hans Sikorski GmbH & Co. KG, Hamburg
  • Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich. (1955b). 24 Preludes And Fugues : For Piano : Op. 87 (Vol. 2). Leeds Music.Edition Sikorski ED. Nr. 2188; Musikverlag Hans Sikorski GmbH & Co. KG, Hamburg

From the Original Blog Site (2012)

Comment & Suggestions

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 Emil Gilels’ recording from 1955? It would be interesting to hear from you how you might compare the two…
~Karen

Incidentally, for the sake of interest and comparison, here’s a performance of No.24 by Tatiana Nikolayeva, to whom the set of work was dedicated.
~Karen

The Author’s Response

Thanks, Karen, for those links!

Tatiana Nikolayeva (1992)

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 (1955)

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 Soviet period. Melnikov was two years old when Shostakovich died. He was 10 when Gorbachev proclaimed Glasnost and Perestroika. However, 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.

How Do They Differ?

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 strong rallentando towards the end of this 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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