Alexander Melnikov plays Shostakovich

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Inspired by the Bach centenary in 1950 and composed in just under four months, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues have rarely been recorded complete because of their huge technical and interpretive challenges. But as the Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov proves in this week’s Full Rotation, they stand as modern counterparts to Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier and deserve to be heard more frequently.

Born in Moscow in 1973, Melnikov follows in the path of formidable pianists like Keith Jarrett and Vladimir Ashkenazy, both of whom recorded Shostakovich's cycle to great acclaim. But he also follows Tatiana Nikolaeva, the Russian pianist that Shostakovich heard perform the Well-Tempered Clavier at the Bicentennial Bach competition. Shostakovich loosely patterned his collection off Bach’s cycle and dedicated it to Nikolaeva. It became her calling card and her series of three recordings are now historic.

Melnikov doesn’t try to emulate Nikolaeva’s approach but rather follows his own distinctive muse. In his liner notes to the set he acknowledges that the fugues were all “school fugues” – textbook studies – and indeed, the full collection is rather conservative in its counterpoint and harmony. Still, he consistently captures the emotional and spiritual moods, at once sincere and ironic, rhapsodic and personal.

Consider, for example, the Prelude No. 1 in C, a calm, cool chorale, but which comes off here as moody and even impressionistic. In the Prelude No. 2, he accentuates the jagged lines and violent leaps of the busy perpetual-motion toccata. Other selections feature a lighter touch, notably the passacaglia-based Preludes Nos. 12 and 16. The sarcastic outbursts of the Prelude and Fugue No. 15 are tweaked for utmost dynamic effect.

Included in this beautifully presented 2-CD set is a bonus DVD that includes, among other gems, a conversation between Melnikov and fortepianist Andreas Staier.

Shostakovich: The Preludes & Fugues

Alexander Melnikov, pianist

Harmonia Mundi

Available at Arkivmusic.com