Vladimir Ashkenazy

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, Op. 87

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When Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed this set in the early 50's for pianist Taitian Nikolaeva, fugues weren't particularly "in," apparently frowned upon by authorities concerned with the degree of "formality" in orchestral works. Nikolaeva recorded a particularly dense, diffuse version of the set, arguably a demonstration of her own declining technique rather than a livelier version more closely intended by Shotakovich. In 1992, Shostakovich's "Op. 87" registered more prominently in the eyes and ears of listeners when jazz pianist Keith Jarrett -- pursuing a notably similar career as contemporary pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy with a bit more distinction (or at least commercial notice) -- zipped through the set in 2:15:20. Some dissenters complained that Jarrett's treatment was whimsically light, so perhaps in some sense Ashkenazy's version may be a kind of response to Jarrett. Whatever the case, Ashkenazy could surely summon a touch more passion out of some of the more ponderous, meditative moments in this marathon of otherwise utterly transportive magic. He comes across as detached, almost indifferent, uninvolved in the sweetly diatonic No. 1, robotically remembering to hit the notes on time without any ambient responsibility or ear for rhythm. No. 18 in F minor, similarly, could be a heart-wrencher, a record to play at the wake of a dearly departed, but here's he's little more than garden-variety, although momentarily playful. But Ashkenazy's very good with the contrasting textures of Prelude of No. 19 in E-flat Major. His speedy lines and breezy passes over the keys in the Prelude of No. 2 in A minor combine to give it a high-rise, big-city-on-the water sense of strangeness and ease. Crystal notes in the memory-soaked No. 4 in E Minor accents its slightly bittersweet underpinnings, and it is this atmosphere that prevails above all in this intriguing modern recording.

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