Even when I was a little girl, Bach was an essential composer for me. Why? Well, I thought he was jazzy and incredibly cool. His music always seemed to dance and sparkle, with wit and sharpness. His voice told a story, and it had immediacy – even while I attempted to play his fugues and pick through the counterpoint.
As an adult musician, I still turn to Bach almost every day. His music is clarity itself, yet it provokes all kinds of problems to be solved, technical and psychological. There seems to be almost no extraneous information on the page – tempi, touch and articulation – and yet there’s an enormous amount to uncover, in terms of stylistic choices. Ornamentation, colouring, to pedal or not pedal: all the things pianists mull over, worry about, experiment with and ultimately change over a period of years (compare Schiff’s early recordings of Bach with his more recent ones). So why intertwine him with Shostakovich?
There’s a fairly swift answer to this – I was asked a few years ago to broadcast a live recital of Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues on the BBC, and I think they were expecting me to play two separate ‘showcases’ of each composer with some clear blue water (and 200 years) in between. But I thought it might be more challenging to weave a path from one to the other, as an unbroken arc. How would it feel to follow one famous Bach work with Shostakovich’s reply? Which composer would ultimately feel more contemporary, or mysterious, or shocking? Bach’s preludes and fugues are famously diverse. They can be springy and light, serious and spikey; they can be tragic, mystical, or humorous. They are (short) marvels of compositional elegance and profundity. Although Shostakovich’s homages are brilliantly engineered, can he really compete with the Godfather of classical music?
The story of how Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues came to be written is a Cold War tale. Sent against his will to Leipzig, as a cultural ambassador in 1950 (for a festival marking the bicentenary of Bach’s death) he found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. (No doubt he visited Bach’s grave, newly laid at the Thomaskirche.) Impressed by a hitherto unknown Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, who came prepared to play all 48 preludes and fugues, he returned to Moscow and composed 24 of his own, in five months. This monumental project was given a premiere, and subsequent majestic performances, by Nikolayeva. Shostakovich hadn’t studied Bach, or earlier music, as a student at Petrograd Conservatory; both his teacher Glazunov and the conservatory’s founder Rimsky-Korsakov thought Bach was boring, and music started with Haydn and Mozart. The Leipzig trip, and the revelation of Nikolayeva’s playing, produced an instantaneous reaction in him. Some of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are like lightening.
The choices that I made in this sequence were key-based and narratively driven (I decided to stick to Bach’s Volume I). I wanted to open with the most famous, translucent work Bach ever wrote, the C major prelude, and allow Shostakovich’s reply – a meltingly beautiful, C major sarabande. Then the jazz kicks in, in Bach’s C minor work, with a robust and bracing reply from Shostakovich in the related key of E flat major. And so the composers tail one another, conversing in connected keys, but with astonishingly different tonal palettes, philosophies and textures. Each composer is tough – if they write melancholic music it’s pure melancholy; if it’s effervescent, it scorches the score like fireworks. Bach plumbs the depths with universality. Shostakovich can write music laced with sarcasm, which then transforms into 20th century existentialism and futility. Both can be extremely funny.
Shortly after playing in Australia I’ll be returning to London to speak at a Neuroscience conference about the effects of music. I know nothing at all about neuroscience other than performing, writing or listening to counterpoint does something very positive to your brain. Multiple voices talk, argue, explicate and then resolve. (There must have been a good reason Brahms wrote a fugue before breakfast every day). It’s an academic technique and a compositional tool – but what both Bach and Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues really do is speak directly to their listeners. Their music is contemporary, urgent and powerful.
March 26th 2014