Shostakovich preludes 855474546

Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2001 and the recording is still available.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
Naxos 8.554745-46 [2 CDs: 142]

On the face of it, it is still hard to believe that this masterful cycle met with an “iron” reception when Shostakovich first presented it to the Soviet authorities following its composition exactly fifty years ago. Listening to the full cycle for the first time in several years I was immediately struck with a fresh sense of awe at the scale, expressive range and ultimately, sheer genius of the composer’s achievement.

By turns disarmingly simple and beautiful, dark and brooding, bitingly ironic, even joyous, it is all here in abundance. Perhaps too much abundance for the Soviet authorities to deal with. The composer himself warned against viewing the cycle as a whole although I have to say that for me at least, the experience of reacquainting myself with listening to the complete work, albeit in two halves, has been well worth the time and concentration involved. There is a cumulative power here which simply cannot be dismissed.

Konstantin Scherbakov is a fine advocate of the work. Born in Siberia in 1963 he is known in this country chiefly through his recordings for Naxos and Marco Polo but judging by this recording it would be good to hear more of him in recital. He faces tough competition of course, notably from Tatyana Nikolayeva whose 1987 recording of the complete cycle on Melodiya capped a lifetime of dedication to the work. Nikolayeva was instrumental in the composition of the work and her recording remains, in my opinion, the benchmark by which all other performances will be judged.

Scherbakov however does achieve a freshness in performance which immediately demands attention. There is a delicacy and deftness of touch in his playing allied with a natural sense of line and phrasing which can be both compelling and moving. Even in some of the more densely textured fugal passages the various strands of melody are clearly articulated and can always be heard. He is aided by a warm but not over resonant recording which allows the detail to come through well.

At Naxos budget price this two-disc set is not merely an excellent introduction for those new to this music. The performance is worthy of a wider audience and I am sure that Shostakovich enthusiasts will find much to enjoy in Scherbakov’s playing. Richard Whitehouse provides a brief but useful introduction to each piece in the booklet. My only quibble is that Naxos did not see fit to provide individual timings for each track.

Christopher Thomas

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