DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Prelude and Fugue in A-flat Major, Op. 87 No. 17 (January 1951)
Shostakovich’s interest in preludes and fugues dates back to when he was one of the jury members of the Leipzig International Bach Competition 1950. Whilst there, Shostakovich became captivated by Well-Tempered Clavier Books I and II, especially Tatiana Nikolayeva’s interpretation. He was exceedingly impressed with her playing that upon his return to Moscow, he plunged into the composition of his own cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues (Op. 87). During the four-month compositional process, he communicated with Nikolayeva daily and played the piece he had just written to her, developing an intimate friendship. With much of his music absorbed, she undertook the cycle’s public premiere in 1952 and has championed it ever since.
Familiar melodies such as religious motifs and influences of Bach can be found in Op. 87. According to Yuri Levitin, a composition student of Shostakovich, Shostakovich was searching for the meaning of life at the time he was composing this collection. He eventually found some of these answers through his religious faith, leading to the inclusion of ancient motifs from the Russian Orthodox Church chants. In addition, many preludes from Op. 87 involve choral texture, making an indirect reference to the choral themes of Bach, paying tribute to the maestro’s musical and historical legacy.
Shostakovich skilfully used a motif to unify Op. 87. First appeared in the theme of Fugue in C major, C-G-A-G is used in several other pieces of this collection, including this A-flat major Prelude and Fugue, in different variants. In this work, the motif is transposed to A-flat and recurs in the accompaniment. Another common characteristic that most pieces in Op.87 shares is the introverted mood. The Prelude of this work is meditative, but interestingly, the Fugue is somewhat lively and playful. In spite of the slightly outward quality in the Fugue, the work has a limited dynamic range as the composer appeared to be an anti-Romantic pianist.
The numerous ties in the Fugue’s left hand part which extend the bass sonorities challenge pianists. The majority of pianists may not be able to play those big chords without splitting them; moreover, the sonority often dies away earlier than the ties suggest. These factors make maintaining the bass sonorities and building a climax simultaneously difficult. Shostakovich, who did not compose at the piano, demonstrated possible solutions to these problems in his recording. He broke the ties and repeated the bass notes when necessary. The ties were also often omitted in order to emphasise dissonances, increasing the harmonic tension.