Our music for this week is a performance of 2 preludes by Shostakovich with Sviatoslav Richter at the keyboard. The first is the A Major Prelude and the second is the A Minor Prelude. This recording was made in 1956.
I wanted to leave this for our last email on Richter because Shostakovich was Richter’s personal favorite. He performed one of Shostakovich’s preludes at almost everyone of his recitals.
There are 24 preludes, one for each of the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale (a scale that ascends by half-steps, not whole-steps). Every one of them has two parts – a prelude and a fugue. Each fugue has between two and five voices interweaving with each other. They proceed in relative major/minor pairs; for instance, C major and A minor go together, G major and E minor go together, etc. It is widely believed that the inspiration for these preludes comes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, which also revolves around the circle of fifths. Shostakovich appears to reference Bach at multiple points through the preludes. For instance, he opens several of the preludes with the exact same notes that Bach uses in his preludes. You will hear in the A Minor fugue (the second piece) that the fugue has an almost identical opening theme to Bach’s A minor fugue. The A minor prelude is also written so that the pianist never leaves the hand position he starts in – this is also something Bach commonly did.
The inspiration for these preludes is worth mentioning. Shostakovich was a devoted member of the ruling Soviet Party, so – unlike Richter – he was treated with respect and admiration by the government. Shostakovich was sent abroad for ambassdor-type missions while Richter wasn’t allowed to leave Moscow. On one of these trips, he judged a Bach competition in Leipzig and listened, over the course of the few days of performances, to many renditions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This inspired him to write his 24 preludes.
The first piece (A major) is a three-voice fugue. Listen for a bass, a tenor, and a soprano voice. All three of them get their moment to shine, but listen for an abrupt shift to the bass voice right after the climax of the movement – this is his way of highlighted the oft-ignored pedal tone.
The second piece (A minor) is so similar to Bach’s style that it is hard to believe it was written by a 20th-century Russian. It is completely melodic – in other words, there are no dissonances whatsoever.