Dmitri Shostakovich’s art and his life in Russia were under acute threat after the Soviet cultural bureaucracy controlled by Stalin issued him with a kind of death sentence in Pravda in 1936: he embodied, it read in devastatingly massive letters, “chaos instead of music”. Shostakovich’s existence was and remained shattered. Nevertheless, he was allowed to travel to Leipzig with a Soviet delegation in 1950: the brother country of the GDR celebrated the 200th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, Shostakovich had been appointed to the jury of the Bach competition there.
Deeply impressed by Leipzig’s Bach tradition and the music of the composer Bach, Shostakovich quickly decided to create a series of preludes and fugues comparable to Bach’s famous cycle of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” using the 24 major and minor keys. Coming up with a music that appears far removed from any symphonic representation and political radiance, as it were, embedded in the niche of completely private expression, where Shostakovich’s string quartets also unfold their splendor. Russian pianists, but also the American Keith Jarrett, most recently Igor Levit, have appropriated the mammoth work – or rather: marvelous work – of these preludes and fugues.
Melnikov thinks that Shostakovich’s agony can be heard in this music
There is probably no pianist today who would be more qualified than Alexander Melnikov to perform the Shostakovich cycle Opus 87, which is spread out in an enormous variety of ideas, more than just brilliantly. That the 1973-born in Moscow, for a long time in Berlin living musician was shaped by his closeness to the legendary pianist Svjatoslav Richter, one believes one can hear it immediately when, as here in the Boulez Hall in Berlin, he adds a secret tremor to the initially calm C major movement of the first prelude. Melnikov has embarked on a true par force tour, because Shostakovich’s greatest piano work, these 24 excitingly cunning and edgy form, character and expression studies, in one run requires a maximum of strength for two and a half extremely condensed hours, of necessity with two breaks. And Melnikov not only mastered it physically and with his outstanding keyboard virtuosity, but also with a high mental presence.
This pianist presents the inventiveness of Shostakovich’s oppressively bold Bach associations with a maximum of fantastic phrasing and sound gradation, taking the contrapuntal tricks of the three- or four-part fugues, double fugues, reflections and diminutions to extremes with musical ‘élan vital’ . And Alexander Melnikov makes the preceding preludes, with their melodic and rhythmic exuberance of charming, grotesque or even violent colors, crystal clear and comprehensible. “Everywhere in Op. 87,” he noted in the booklet of his CD recording of the Preludes and Fugues of the Russian Shostakovich, who suffered from politics, “we hear the voice of a tormented man who again and again finds the superhuman strength to give life the to defy . . . with its vicissitudes, its adversities, and its occasional beauties.”