SHOSTAKOVICH: 24 Preludes, op. 34. Aphorisms, op. 13. Piano Sonata No.
1, op. 12. Three Fantastic Dances, op. 5.
Lower your expectations a little. In the Thirties, my mother studied to become a concert pianist and worked on the 24 Preludes, so I knew these pieces before I had heard the better-known Preludes and Fugues, op. 84. Shostakovich wrote them in the heady days of Soviet Modernism, before Stalin cracked down on or even killed the most interesting artists in the country. In the early preludes, the composer doesn't concern himself with building an homage to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier but with giving free rein to his grotesque humor. There's nothing wrong with these pieces, especially in small doses, but other than the composer's fecundity of ideas, there's also little that wows you. The preludes are all miniatures, and two important tests of a miniature are that it interests you and satisfies you, despite its short length. Shostakovich passes the first test, but not the second. I found myself wanting more from just about every piece.
On the other hand, the Aphorisms, written roughly five years earlier, grab me. For one thing, they seem conceived as an entire piece. Shostakovich often goes to the trouble to link the end of one movement to the beginning of another by transforming an ending bit into a starting one. You arrive to take off to a new place. One also senses a hint of Prokofiev, particularly that composer's Sarcasms, but there's plenty of indications of the Shostakovich to come. Prokofiev sounds even more strongly throughout the first piano sonata, which Shostakovich wrote at around twenty. The level of mastery astonishes me. It's not that the form is perfect or the thematic argument is particularly coherent, by any means, but that Shostakovich has mastered the shaping of musical time over a long span. The level of musical thought far exceeds normal expectations for one so young. This composer lets you know he has something to say. Prokofiev himself should have been grateful to have written it.
The Three Fantastic Dances, in contrast, trifle with our affections, but with good humor nevertheless. The sixteen-year-old composer hasn't yet found his voice or even anything close to it. Whatever shock these pieces carried once has long since discharged, but their charm remains.
Scherbakov does well with the material, but he's really only as good as the music. No big surprise or revelations here, he does best in the sonata and in the Aphorisms, the most substantial pieces.
S.G.S. (August 2004)