You might that Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” would be some of the driest music you’ve ever heard, but in hands of Alexander Melnikov, Shostakovich’s pieces acquire a life of their own. That’s what I experienced at Melnikov’s recital on Saturday afternoon (September 26) at Lincoln Hall. The Russian pianist made the most of his debut concert with Portland Piano International, delivering exceptional performances of the first twelve preludes and fugues of Shostakovich plus Schubert’s “Wanderer-fantasie” and “Three Piano Pieces.”
Shostakovich wrote his “24 Preludes and Fugues” (Opus 87) after hearing Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" performed at an international competition in Leipzig, Germany. Like Bach’s fundamental work, Shostakovich’s probes the circle of fifths with pairings of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. In lesser hands, the “24 Preludes and Fugues” would sound like an academic exercise, but Melnikov is one of those rare artists whose playing elevates this work to a higher plane.
Combining pinpoint technique and generous expression, Melnikov found the core of each prelude and fugue so that listeners could feel their way into the music and into the mind of Shostakovich. His articulate playing revealed the character of each piece, yet linked them together. Some were delicate and tender in nature. Others were forceful and demonstrative. Sometimes the left hand seemed to be holding a conversation with the right, at times bordering on a playful mood. There were lonely and melancholy moments as well, reminding the audience that Shostakovich wrote this music during a very stressful time after he had been reprimanded by Stalin’s policies, which dictated that art and artist must serve the Soviet state.
Melnikov opened the concert with Schubert’s “Wanderer-fantasie,” displaying excellent control of dynamics, crystal clear runs, and gorgeously shaped melodies. With cat-like reflexes, he guided the the listeners past dramatic landscapes and could also relax and enjoy the dreamy ones. He ended the first half of the concert with an immaculate performance of Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces,” and the rousing ending of the third piece generated loud applause.
At the end of the concert, which lasted over two hours, Melnikov was rewarded with a standing ovation and cheers that brought him out on the stage several times. That must have gotten him re-energized in order to sign CDs, including his highly acclaimed release of Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” under the harmonia mundi label. He was scheduled to play the remaining pieces on Sunday afternoon, and I would think that they turned out equally splendid.