It’s quite an achievement when a pianist can captivate an audience for a normal performance, let alone for one that lasts two and a half hours. For this reason pianists do not often tackle all of Shostakovich’s Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues in one evening, but this is precisely what Alexander Melnikov did at the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam.

Alexander Melnikov, © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov,
© Marco Borggreve

The Preludes and Fugues are full of surprises and contrasts, while still being strangely homogenous. It was written in 1950-1951, after Shostakovich was sent to Leipzig in 1950 to be on the judging panel of the very first International J.S. Bach Piano Competition. While there, he heard Tatiana Nikolyeva play. She won the competition, and she and her interpretations of Bach apparently inspired Shostakovich to start writing these solo piano pieces.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues have a structure that is easily recognizable: every piece consists of a prelude and fugue, the fugue building on a theme heard in the prelude. But despite this structure, every single piece still sounds idiosyncratic. Shostakovich stated several times that the preludes and fugues can be played separately, which makes it all the more interesting when they are played together, with no break between them. They do, though, remain a set of distinct pieces that possess the same proportions and some of the same themes.

Between the preludes and fugues there are vast differences. No. 4, for example, is a beautiful, brooding, slow piece, and the challenge in playing it lies in the emotional weight that needs to be added, and not so much in the skills required. But no. 15 is a much faster, virtuosic piece that in Melnikov’s interpretation was played so impressively fast you could not help but breathe a sigh of relief at the end: it felt somewhat like a rollercoaster ride!

The piece was not received well in the Soviet Union when first performed, the commentary being that it had too many dissonant chords. Nowadays no concert-goer is surprised by dissonant chords any more, and here there is nothing that one might consider to be cacophonous. Still, there is a certain edge to the pieces that betrays Shostakovich’s nature: his music is never simple. Perhaps the most calming and simple piece of them all is the last, no. 24. It is the longest and seems to drive out all the worked-up energy, all the discomfort; it creates an immense sense of calm. When it was over, it was obvious that it was over, that the cycle was complete, that the music was finished and that it was supposed to be this way.

One of the things that make this such a wonderful work to witness live is that every individual piece requires so much personal interpretation. Not just in terms of how fast to play it, but also what notes to emphasize, what volume to play at, what emotions to draw out of it. Alexander Melnikov’s interpretation was mesmerizing from start to finish: not only is he an incredibly virtuoso pianist, but you could tell that he played with his heart as much as with his hands. Always moving most of his body, completely entranced by the music, and his ability to transfer this passion to the concertgoers was deeply impressive. It is hard for me to imagine a performance of this work that could be better than Melnikov’s; it contained everything the music requires, and much more.