They might not have the sexiest title, and their 2½-hour duration is a little daunting. But Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, have proven to be a big hit — at least by classical music standards — for Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov.
His recording of this milestone cycle, or set of short pieces, was named one of the 50 greatest recordings of all time by BBC Music Magazine a year after its 2010 release, and the 44-year-old keyboard star has gone on to perform it on major concert stages across the world.
This season, Melnikov has just two performances of the cycle scheduled, and one is set for 2 p.m. Sunday under the auspices of University of Chicago Presents.
Executive director Amy Iwano was knocked out by pianist’s playing when he appeared as part of the series in November 2016 with his longtime recital partner, violinist Isabelle Faust, and she immediately wanted to re-engage him.
Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues; Pianist Alexander Melnikov
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: University of Chicago, Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th
Iwano likes to present works that have been rarely heard in Chicago, and these 20th-century pieces certainly qualify.
“I talked to other concert presenters around the country and got further raves about him and this program,” she said.
Melkinov was first asked to play four of the Preludes and Fugues in the mid-1990s at a Moscow festival organized by celebrated Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. About 10 years later, the head of Harmonia Mundi asked what Melnikov would like to record next on the classical label, and the pianist thought of a complete set of these pieces.
While the works have not exactly been neglected, they are hardly well known either.
“For once, I thought there was still something that could be done and said,” Melkinov said from his studio in Berlin.
After the recording’s success, the cycle quickly was in such demand by presenters that it surprised even Melnikov.
“That the piece is very good, I had no doubt,” he said. “What is interesting is that when I started to play them as a cycle, I was very afraid because it is long. By now, I’m not afraid anymore because it always works with audiences. By the end, we get this feeling of achievement together.”
Shostakovich is most famous for his 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets. Although he was a pianist, as a composer he is little associated with the instrument. A notable exception is this cycle, which consists of 24 pairs of preludes and fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. Some of these exhibit his tough signature style, but there also are moments of grace and delicacy.
“I think the Preludes and Fugues is the most important piano work that he has written,” Melnikov said, “but not because it is pianistic but because it deals with polyphony [a contrapuntal harmonic system] in a dogmatic yet rich way.”
He said he believes the importance of hearing the tightly interwoven works together as a set has been underestimated because even Shostakovich suggested it was acceptable to pull out selections from the whole.
“There are all kinds of connections — big, small and medium — between all its parts,” Melnikov said.
The famed Russian composer wrote this cycle in 1950-51 after being inspired by a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s preludes and fugues by 26-year-old pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva at a festival in Leipzig, Germany. She went on to premiere Shostakovich’s new creations in 1952 and championed them the rest of her career.
Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” probably the most famous set of preludes and fugues ever composed, significantly influenced Shostakovich, who structured his set after the earlier masterwork and even quoted sections of it.
While Melnikov does not play Shostakovich’s cycle as much as he did a few years ago, he also does not want to suspend performances of it either.
“I make sure I do it once or twice a year,” he said, “because, once I forget it, I will not have the energy to bring it all back somehow.”
Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.