Shostakovich’s great keyboard cycle, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, still carries something of an aura more than six decades after its creation. This is music of a strange, abstract and solitary beauty. Grand concert halls are not its native habitat. A large thrill-seeking public is not its natural audience. We might borrow Eisler’s phrase about Schoenberg and say this is music that wears a cloak of loneliness.
Having been crushed by party censure in 1948, Shostakovich wrote many notes and delivered many speeches to please those with power over his life and art. One imagines a corresponding hunger to reclaim a music of personal authenticity. Beginning in 1950, these Preludes and Fugues seemed to pour from his pen one after another, written for his own instrument, addressed in a profound dialogue with Bach, and in particular “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
These days the cycle is encountered in recital only rarely, but over the decades it has attracted champions who have responded viscerally to something in its DNA. The newest is Alexander Melnikov, a Russian pianist who has made the cycle one of his specialties. For his Boston debut on Sunday at the Gardner Museum, he performed the first 12 Preludes and Fugues, condensing some 70 minutes of music into a single mesmerizing span.
From the self-possession of his stage manner to the immense care with which he drew out the music’s more delicate sonorities, Melnikov projected a sense of seriousness, humility, and reverence for this score. At the same time there was nothing desiccated or dry in Sunday’s outing, as this pianist seemed determined to point up the tremendous range of textures and characters in this music. He brought out the sweet chorale-like qualities of the dreamy opening C-Major Prelude, but also emphasized its passing stabs of dissonance. In the opening of the corresponding Fugue he gave the music a sense of mystery and hesitation, as if each note was being pulled from a far away place. In this particular Fugue Shostakovich actually quotes his own propagandistic “Song of the Forests.” Could there be any better way to burn away its taint?
The G-Major Prelude and Fugue marks a departure in the cycle’s expressive tone, and Melnikov emphasized that too, rendering the Prelude’s opening in massive granitic chords, and taking the Fugue at a hair-raising tempo. In later fugues Shostakovich seems to revel unabashedly in the more purely cerebral pleasures of counterpoint, and Melnikov brought to those movements a striking clarity, projecting a sense of palpable engagement with the music’s inner gearwork.
Overall this pianist’s intensity of focus and immersion in this score brought the music across with the desired sense of space around the notes. Sunday’s audience listened in rapt silence and its ovation was swift. To call it a day however after the Fugue No. 12 felt jarringly abrupt. Both performer and audience seemed ready to follow this cycle through to its culmination. Instead we will wait until this coming Sunday, when Melnikov returns to the Gardner for Part II of his survey, picking up where he left off.