Brighton Fringe 2018
Returning to St Michael’s after his five-hour epic traversal of Kaikhosru Sorabji’ Opus Clavicembalisticum last year, Jonathan Powell takes Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op 87 at a little over two hours and fifteen minutes if played straight through (by Powell, far swifter than many). Completed after hearing Tatiana Nikolayeva play Bach’s 48 in Leipzig in 1950, Shostakovich thought to write a few teaching pieces too. It soon evolved into what we have here.
Jonathan Powell’s vast repertoire started to attract attention with his traversal of Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988). Sorabji’s famous for casually breaking the record for longest pianistic compositions featuring a singular amalgam of formal counterpoint and non-western expressions of thrust and pattern. To see Powell play Sorabji’s 1930 five-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum as he did at St Michael’s last year – before live-streaming it at Oxford days later – is the musical experience of a lifetime.
Powell’s certainly associated with such epic unfoldings; and he’s recorded Sorabji extensively. But he also plays for instance Schubert (the ‘unfinished’ D840 Sonata), Rachmaninov (the Etudes Tableaux Op 39), Bax (his first Sonata), Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat Op 84, Michael Finnissey and many contemporary composers. He’s also known as a composer himself (notably his 2010 Violin Sonata).
So Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op 87 at a little over two hours and fifteen minutes if played straight through (by Powell, far swifter than many) is a bit of a snip really. Completed after hearing Tatiana Nikolayeva play Bach’s 48 in Leipzig in 1950, Shostakovich thought to write a few teaching pieces too. It soon evolved into what we have here through the winter of 1951-52, a time when Shostakovich had to keep to writing film music and shelving concert works. As it was the pieces were slowly accepted and only when Nikolayeva brought this music to the west around 1990 did we fully realize its power and ultimately defiance.
Shostakovich composed sequentially but though he began in C major’s sun-whitened radiance like Bach’s he darted around for keys. There initially seems no order save major and minor and no subsequent re-ordering, each composed in the order we have it. In fact the whole cycle’s cunningly composed in ascending fifths, still alternating major/minor but unlike Bach who never intended his cycles to be performed in one recital, Shostakovich is aiming – ideally – for just that. The ascending fifths lend an aspiring omega-point to the work. And what an end.
Shostakovich’s layering unfolds in an epic traversal of a mind refracting itself through strict forms through to a blazing assertion of self, that DSCH signature which made its first appearance here, inspired by Bach’s signature of himself (German H is our B natural).
Powell paradoxically starts his swift traversal by playing particularly slow and soft with the opening No. 1 in C major teasing out its echt-Bach sonorities with gentle mid-century Soviet harmonies, rare Shostakovich sunshine. It’s the nearest Shostakovich gets to Bach as if a point of departure. Powell emphasizes this too. No-one I’ve heard patiently teases out the Bachian radiance like this, and it forms a still point to
The following No. 2 in A minor follows the Bach pattern if not key by a rapid and with Powell very light touch as this piece agitates a tiny presto prelude and then fugue more spiky, like one of Shostakovich’s polkas in fact. It’s in No. 3 the starkly grandiose G major, starting like a great organ peal, that Powell’s experience of pedalling in this space sets up something for the next nine preludes. He’s using the same pedalling he’s always used and the Yamaha’s responsive. The effect’s an entrance to some vast brass-edged Escorial. It’s as clangorous as the Victorian-Gothic air amplifying it.
Nevertheless St Michael’s acoustics are treacherous and the grand heavy pedalling asked for by the composer comes at a crash: it’s even more grand than Shostakovich intended perhaps. The gentler, melancholy No. 4 in E minor with its first of several winding fugues (a four-voice double fugue in fact which with Powell you understand) restores things – and it’s one of the most memorable too.
Nevertheless the beautiful and very sunny D major No. 5 that follows is occasionally clouded with slightly thicker cumuli strati than you’d expect the acoustic. It’s a smiling tuneful piece, and comes across here as slightly fierce, though the fugue’s still playful.
Powell’s vision is uncompromising and here more than in any recording I’ve heard we get the architecture of this masterpiece. More than say individual character pieces Powell relates each prelude and fugue as if facets of – well a Sorabji construction. It’s more than valid since it’s not been essayed in quite this way. The dedicatee played them winningly though latterly a little slowly, and they seem despite her Bachian credentials rather like character pieces too. Powell’s not so much more analytical than most, though he is: he can project that analysis vividly, like an exo-skeleton in music.
No. 6 in B minor is darker than No. 4, tragic rather than simply brooding, swifter, dramatic, like the composer’s Symphony No. 6 in the same key. It’s a dark baroque key, almost Handelian of Couperin’s famous Ordre No. 8, a keening meditation. Rising to a climax Powell pulls out its expressive uncompromising range with emphatic barlines; the piece hammers them home. The fugue retreats mumbling though Powell likes to emphasize its structure. There’s a homage to Schubert though it’s pretty muted too. Few can rival his clarity and gradations of putting a complex work across. You never forget the genre or scale.
The brief No. 7 in A major is like No. 5 a glorious hymn-like affirmation, the prelude full of air and summer. Its ecstatically rapid fugue is like nothing on earth, but is earth, as Geoffrey Hill once observed of something very different. And it flits off somewhere very differently to Bach. To put it vulgarly (you’ll hear Powell wince) it’s like someone running to meet their new lover, almost tripping over themselves (well, the composer’s February 1952 recording does just that). Powell takes it to an equally ecstatic, slightly austere conclusion. A long engagement.
No. 8 in F sharp minor with its tripping menacing jog-trot opens to a three-note repeated fugue that’s endless. Indeed having just purchased the new Nikolayeva recording in 1991 I had to leave two unmusical friends in my college rooms as I shot out for an urgent appointment. When I returned 45 minutes alter it was still playing the same track. My friends only noticed they didn’t like classical music, and hadn’t realised the CD was caught in a speck of dust. It’s as hypnotic and unvarying as that. Powell emphasizes this: it’s a haunted quiet keening, obsessive, almost minimal in its inexorable tread; but with more expressivity than any such piece.
No. 9 in ‘innocent’ E major starts as slowly a the preceding fugue like a preparation – Powell revels in the sonorities that echo No. 3’s grandeur then crisply moves to the eventful rapid two-voice fugue which gently returns to the first figure.
No. 10’s C sharp minor by contrast ripples then fugues out rather slowly to a four-voice meditation. Powell’s clarity does make this more monumental than I’ve heard elsewhere. And it’s a long fugue.
No 11 in B major’s a quietly chortling affair, almost laughing – its tunefully light like No. 5 or No. 7 but smiling; and in its fugue as near as Shostakovich got in this cycle to the Keystone Cops, though not as close as in his Jazz Suites. Powell plays up the manic rather than comic element and allows the frantic writing to speak out of simple characterisation.
No. 12 in G sharp minor is all tragic monumentalism, like Bach’s C minor Passacaglia in its movement, in fact modelled on it. Shostakovich was a master of the passacaglia form too. Meat and drink to Powell who also uses his pedal, since to do anything less would seem disproportionate. But he can also delicately pedal away the incipient organ language of No. 3 and here without losing scale or moment. It’s quiet in its compositional rigour, though Powell makes it less so. The strident fugue with its striking, struck figures produces emphatic, skeletal patterns getting gentler and more subtler normally. With Powell you hear everything.
By the second half Powell had taken soundings and used the pedal sparingly. No. 13 in F sharp major opens in a pastoral halo, like a benediction as does the gently aspiring fugue which uniquely is five-voiced. You hardly notice it. Powell’s scale here was just right, though he’d have played this gently enough as he did No. 1. Like No. 1 it’s slow, almost as white-keyed as that prelude’s C major.
No. 14 in E flat minor’s the nearest Shostakovich gets to Rachmaninov (not very close), one of that composer’s preludes or possibly Etudes-Tableaux, an imminent tragic declaration with tremolando left hand and a picked-out right-hand melody that often sounds bell-like – hence Rachmaninov’s invoked, or the same old Orthodox soundscape. It’s like a miniature opera. The song’s being drowned by the left-hand rising louder and louder. Powell strikes the grand utterance of this without overdoing the gradations proving the slight over-emphases before weren’t his artistic intent. The fugue’s a winding lilting refrain, memorable and curiously uplifting in its unflinching witness. one of the greatest in the set.
As is the next, certainly one of the favourites. No. 15 in D flat major is with the next piece one of those Richter played (he infuriated Shostakovich by typically refusing to pay the entire cycle, just as he missed out two of Debussy’s Book I Preludes). You can see why. It’s witty and playful with a Haydnesque sense of humour turning to a more wistful subject. Its four-voice fugue is another dark skeltering chase – I mentioned Keystone Cops earlier and here you’re reminded of Shostakovich’s youthful presto chases including Hypothetically Murdered. He’s mining a vein he’s scarcely allowed himself for decades, not since his early 24 Preludes Op 34 back in 1933. It’s like being chased by Stalin. Powell enacts this darkness consummately and strictly: there’s the fun.
No. 16 in B flat minor is as remote as No. 8’s F sharp minor, and clearly links to No. 24. It’s the second of these profound meditations, a superb, brief prelude and the adagio three-voiced fugue more purposeful and less reticent than its linked prelude or No. 8’s endless fugue; it’s clearly groping to somewhere in a spidery movement. Another wonderful piece featuring a relentless tonality, like No. 8 but a more fluid contrapuntal surface. The prelude’s a lot like a 17th century fantasia. Powell doesn’t overemphasize this but the remorseless grounding poetry’s indelible and a touch more defiant than I’ve heard.
This is where Nikolayeva’s final performance came to an end in November 1993 aged just 66. Suffering a stroke mid-way through the fugue she went off-stage, then heroically came back and completed the fugue, then had to retire. She died three days later. Powell played this fugue more forcefully than I recalled elsewhere; like another experience. But when I checked recordings I realized that Alexander Melnikov and others play it like that too. Perhaps it’s Nikolayeva’s final 1990 recording that’s the anomaly.
No. 17 in A flat major’s a bustling happy – and memorable – prelude more forceful towards its close. It’s the four-voiced fugue that grips with a four-note motif, the last three notes tied following the gently emphatic lead-note. The most severely academic in one sense of all the fugues, and thus Powell’s forte, it’s a slowly accumulating hymn of affirmation too; from some deep solace, possibly the act of creating this music.
No 18 in F minor’s a surprise. At least a gentle melancholy, more wistful than the deep mourning you’d traditionally expect from this key. A study in falling adjacent tonalities, its fugue gathers up this essence pungently and briefly in a four-voice fugue leading to affirmatives. Or does it? It leaves us ambiguously.
No 19’s E flat major is rightly emphatic in Powell’s hands with a grand opening theme somehow undercut by a scurrying left-hand bass like a gruff undertow. The fugue brings this out, strongly-accented dramatic and Powell revels in its uncompromising fugality as it were.
No 20 in C minor wanders gently into reflective sunlight, again more in the Russian piano-pastoral tradition, till you recognize the Bachian voice-leading. It picks through a sotto-voiced commentary on slightly more emphatic lead-notes. Powell does his best to ensure pedalling’s wholly restrained to do justice to his touch. It’s not always fair to have to fight the air around you, especially when its bloom is so appealing.
No. 21 in B flat major’s joyful, just as its major-keyed predecessor wasn’t joyful but radiantly reflective. Its truculent pointed memorable prelude leads to a fugue repeating its voices over and over in an accelerando that renews itself, softens and loudens again as it were. It’s a partying piece, one conceivably where even the commissars might be letting their cropped hair down – to imagine vulgarly. In fact its demented waltz-theme suggests charging figures at the fag-end of a May 1st cultural knees-up.
No. 22 in G minor’s another gently rocking piece with its prelude leading a melody that comes to dominate a quietly forceful witness to a better life. There’s a flowing, descending quavers to reinforce this and it’s quite hypnotic; not tragic, but lyrically charged. The four-voiced fugue’s melody has touches of Vaughan Williams to it, modal and remote from specifically Russian connotations, except Shostakovich’s exceptionally ambivalent tonal language – musically as well as politically the times suited him or he be-suited them.
The F major No. 23 is has an innocence-recollected-in-experience theme, consolatory and with the lead-note isolated with five tied ones following, almost a children’s theme. The fugue takes this up complicating the world in more ambivalence, a three-voiced experience over innocence perhaps.
It’s No. 24 in D minor that introduces us to Shostakovich reborn. Taking from Bach the conceit of a theme in his own initials – the Germans’ H is our B natural in BACH, Shostakovich with dire warnings of formalism around him defiantly hammered out his own response in German notation too. DSCH. That’s D E flat (Es in German!) C and B natural. He does it in No. 15 just once but there’s a four-note variant of it here.
Powell’s in his element of course and he leans into this with ever-rising pianistic emphases, throwing caution and light pedalling away – until you realize he’s suddenly holding back where the music suddenly does, and there’s an eddy.
Starting with a monumental D minor statement, the prelude’s slow-wound power becomes the fugue’s subject. And the fugue’s overwhelming, one of the greatest of the 20th century, or since Bach. Its tempo keeps increasing, slows and then re-asserts this speed. No-one since the composer’s February 1952 recording has caught this shattering excitement in the way Powell does – not even Melnikov. It’s not only a defiant hymn of triumph over shadowy enemies, an assertion of individuality responding to Bach and his overwhelming legacy too; it’s an astonishing edifice. As well as flowing forward with the four-note tightening in a contrapuntal tension it keeps rising expressively. The impassioned climax hammers out that defiance in vindication of art and humanity. And formalism, Shostakovich might have added, whatever that is.
Powell makes more of the interconnectedness of this music perhaps than anyone since Nikolayeva, and more lucidly than anybody ever. Acclimatising himself to the acoustics he delivered something extraordinary. Given his sensitivity to timbre and register it’s a pity the acoustic proved treacherous but Powell adjusted to it. He doesn’t indulge in psycho-biographical or whimsical projections of which this response you’re reading is doubtless guilty. He refuses easy characterisation too. He can occasionally prove unsmiling but he understands what Shostakovich wants above all from a complete traversal. It changes the way we experience this towering pianistic achievement.