Alexander Melnikov’s first public encounter with Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues (Op. 87) happened around 1997. He had been invited by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter to play a Shostakovich program at Richter’s December Nights festival. Melnikov was asked to play the song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and the violin sonata; to those he added four of the 24 preludes and fugues that Shostakovich had written in a burst of inspiration in the early 1950s. It was a small sample from the mammoth set, but it left a lasting impression.
“Somehow,” he said recently by phone from his home in Berlin, “I felt that this is music I can play not too badly.” His voice rises at the end of this sentence, as if he were asking a question rather than making a statement.
He was being modest. Melnikov learned the entire set a decade later, and his 2010 recording of the Preludes and Fugues on the Harmonia Mundi label is one of the most compelling in recent memory. The piece has become something of a calling card for him, and he will make his Boston debut on Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, with the first 12 preludes and fugues; the rest will follow a week later.
The Preludes and Fugues are regarded as the best known of Shostakovich’s solo piano works. The inspiration comes from Bach, who immortalized the form in the two books of his “Well Tempered Clavier.” The catalyst for Shostakovich’s set was his experience of hearing the Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva at a piano competition at the 1950 Leipzig Bach Festival, where she offered to play any of Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues from memory. Shostakovich was so captivated by her playing that on returning to Moscow he immediately began writing his own cycle, taking just three and a half months to complete it.
Nikolayeva, who died in 1993, cast a long shadow over this work, as have her three recordings of it. Other notable versions have come from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Keith Jarrett, among others. Yet, Melnikov said, “this was one of the very rare occasions where the piece is very well known, but still I had the firm feeling that there is something else to look for.
“As soon as I started learning them, the ideas started to crystallize,” he continued. “And this is what is always very exciting for musicians — to work on a piece of music, and if it rewards your thinking, it’s a very nice feeling.”
Asked what he sought to underline in his recording, Melnikov pointed to a sort of paradox in Shostakovich’s fugues. Almost all of them follow a formal model so strict and familiar that Melnikov, in the program note to his recording, calls it “a school fugue.” By contrast, the musical themes that he uses to build those fugues are wildly diverse, stylistically and emotionally.
Why combine these two diametrically opposed characteristics? Melnikov thinks Shostakovich wanted to show that “when someone listens to this, they would never believe all these fugues are written on one and the same model. The contrasts are so big — they cover the entire spectrum of characters and moods. Whenever I play it, I always try to approach this music from that point of view.”
Perhaps the pianist’s most important conviction about the piece is that it is a cycle — a whole entity that divides neatly into two halves of 12 but is meant to be played whole. No longer will Melnikov play isolated parts of it. Only “in extreme cases,” he will play either the first or second half in concert. But his clear preference is to play it complete in one sitting, and he is convinced that audiences are up to the challenge.
“In the beginning, I was very afraid that they weren’t going to be able to sit and listen so long to polyphonic music,” he said. “But I have to say, and it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Shostakovich, that not once was it a failure. Always there is a feeling of achievement, even with the most unprepared audience. I have to say I’m not afraid anymore — I just know it works.”
Although the Shostakovich has become a signature piece for Melnikov, he seemed, during the conversation, ready to move beyond it. In between the two Gardner concerts he will play a full week of concerts with his recital partner, violinist Isabelle Faust, in music of Beethoven, Weber, and Schubert.
“I’m not tired of playing it, but I just don’t want it to happen that I become too much associated with one composer or one work,” he said. He harbors a dream of playing the piece in St. Petersburg, the composer’s hometown. “Once I do this, then I think I will put it aside, simply because, as a pianist, we have so much repertoire to manage. Life is so short and it’s already terrible that we cannot play even 1 percent of it.”