Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues – Jarrett (ECM New Series 1469/70)

Dmitri Shostakovich
24 Preludes and Fugues

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded July 1991, Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“When I first saw these pieces in a music shop, I knew I wanted to play them. I recognized the language. But when I started playing them, they were so close to me that I knew I had to record them.”
–Keith Jarrett

In 1950, during a trip abroad as a cultural ambassador, Shostakovich was treated to a performance of selections from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier by pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva in Leipzig, where the composer had been asked to serve as a judge for the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition. Just two years later, Nikolayeva would have Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues in hand as their dedicatee for the first public performance in Leningrad. Although one can hardly talk about these pieces without being aware of Bach’s shadow, I think it is precisely Bach’s shadow that Shostakovich is interested in here. In modern parlance one might say these are the “b-sides” of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a record of previously unreleased demos that refused to be lost to time. Like Bach, Shostakovich rallies through a lifetime of moods: from naivety (D major Fugue) to gentility (D major, B major, and F-sharp major Preludes); dawn (E minor Prelude) to destruction (B minor and G-sharp minor Preludes); death (F-sharp minor Fugue) to joy (E major and B major Fugues), resplendence (the standout A major Fugue), and playfulness (A-flat major Prelude and Fugue, B-flat major Prelude). The overall tone, however, is one of exuberance. Whenever this music isn’t dancing, it’s waiting to pick up its feet and resume. The carefully laid out balance of the entire work is clear not only in the distribution of slow and fast movements, but also in Jarrett’s dynamic pianism. He excavates the keyboard like an adult unearthing a time capsule buried as a child—such is the nostalgia folded into every note. From the punctuational bass notes of the E-flat minor Prelude to the poignancy of the F major Prelude and the smooth legato phrasing of the Beethovenian G minor Prelude, Jarrett negotiates a wealth of obstacles with the kind of fluidity that can only exist behind closed eyes. Moments of dissonance creep in only briefly, as if to remind us of perfection in that which is imperfect.

This is incredibly insightful music played by a musician who seems to see more in it than Shostakovich himself. In bearing his heart to us, Jarrett also bears the composer’s. Not only do Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues make up one of the most important works of the twentieth century, but Jarrett’s performance and ECM’s flawless production also turn them into one of its most important recordings. Need I say more?

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