24 Preludes, op. 34 (1933)
CD: Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 1, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.555781)
I’ve taken a bit of a semi-intentional break from last week’s Shostakovich listening, and it’s been good to get clear of the Lady Macbeth-dominated years 1931-1932, not to mention the twelfth symphony. The twenty-four preludes put me into a completely different headspace. I don’t know solo piano music well as a genre but I’m increasingly struck by how the instrument is both personal and extroverted. Certainly it seems to draw a clarity out of Shostakovich, who was an active concert pianist at the time and wrote the preludes for his own repertoire. It’s good iPod music for walking around town in foggy weather and in an abstract mood, as I was yesterday afternoon on my way to a ballot drop box.
I haven’t known the preludes well before: Like the other Scherbakov recordings on Naxos that I’ve had for a couple of years, I’ve listened but never really registered. I know a couple of the more tuneful ones from a violin-and-piano transcription by Dmitry Tsyganov. They’re half an hour of short pieces, pensive and prickly, just slightly too long on average, I think, to be called miniatures. They touch the extremes of Shostakovich’s style but compared to the carnival atmosphere of his stage works they’re rather reserved, full of moderatos and allegrettos. In tone they most closely resemble 1927’s Aphorisms, his previous piano work, but they also point forward to the lucid, middle-period style of his 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, written a quarter of a lifetime later. Prelude I, above, is one such example; Prelude IV, a fugue itself, is an even more transparent example:
There is plenty of Shostakovich’s spiny humor, too, as in Prelude VI’s wrong-note perkiness. I don’t have any basis of comparison for Scherbakov’s playing but, as in some of the earlier recordings of his that I’ve surveyed, he plays with a fitting, Erik Satie-like detachment:
The melodic graspability of preludes like that one, and more so XV and XVI, is less a foreshadowing of Shostakovich’s later style than a sign of his increasing willingness in the early 1930s to carry a tune. It makes his music easier to hang onto but it still works best when it’s somewhat inscrutable: The auspiciously numbered Prelude XIII, with its droning pulse and slightly pungent harmonies, is the highlight of the set for me.
Prelude XIII gives a good sense of the musical landscape of the whole, a cartoonish one but one overcast with shadows and clouds. It shares that with Aphorisms but while the earlier work ends on a foreboding note, opus 34’s Prelude XXIV makes a spikier and more energetic finale — not to say a happy one, but one that casts the preceding twenty-three in a more outward-facing and less somber light. It’s a fine work, one that makes you feel you’re experiencing it at some distance, like watching oddly-shaped fish swim past in an aquarium tank.