No opus number: Five Preludes (1919-1921)

Five Preludes (no opus number, 1919-1921)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.570092)

Scherbakov’s recording of these Five Preludes shares an album with the Three Pieces, which also date from Shostakovich’s time as a conservatory student, but the musical ideas in the preludes sound more mature and fully realized.  This group also contains the earliest music of Shostakovich’s that I had previously heard:  Valeri Polyansky’s “Unknown Shostakovich” album on Chandos includes the A minor and G major preludes as orchestrated decades later by Alfred Schnittke, who transforms them into colorful and, to my ear, vaguely pensive orchestral miniatures.

The very short, sprightly A minor prelude opens this set in a lyrical idiom like that of the Opus 1 scherzo.  The G major follows in a similar style but more contemplative mood, which builds to a central climax and then quiets back down, finally thinning out; the gentle, undulating music that opens it is the highlight of the five pieces:

In contrast, the central E minor prelude (according to the album notes, the only one of the five that didn’t originate in the Eight Preludes, Op. 2) finally flashes some spikiness, though not yet Shostakovich’s wit:


The D flat major prelude is airy and a bit sly, as the composer, and Scherbakov, toy with its over-refined tunefulness.  The last, in F minor, proceeds more straightforwardly before climbing to the high end of the keyboard and disappearing.  Together the preludes last under seven minutes, a musical bonbon, though I get more of a sense of the emerging composer from this work than from the two I listened to earlier this week.

Yesterday I took my lunch break to go down to the park near my office building downtown —  just a small greenspace with odd artificial hillocks surrounded by high-rise offices and condos, so full at that hour of dog walkers, the members of a small workout group, and miscellaneous workers on food / phone / cigarette breaks — and listen through the preludes a couple of times on my iPod, once while sitting on a bench and again while walking around the block.  I’m a little ambivalent about the experience of spending time out in public with my ears plugged into a device (like virtually everyone else, off in my own private Idaho, with noise-reducing headphones no less) but it’s a pleasant way to spend some time on a summer afternoon.

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