Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues

In my research on counterpoint, I came across Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues for solo piano, one per major and minor key of the chromatic scale as in Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavier’.  Unfortunately I don’t have the sheet music for this work and as it is still in copyright I can’t get it from imslp.org.  However I really enjoyed listening to them (performed by pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva), and it was particularly interesting to hear fugues composed by a twentieth century composer.

Compared to Bach’s work which was written for the much smaller keyboard instruments of his day, Shostakovich’s uses the full range of the piano, and you can for example hear some of the fugue lines deep in the bass notes.  It is harmonically and rhythmically much more modern, but the fugue form itself is fundamentally the same.

No 2 (A minor) sounds like a typical Baroque melody to begin with and then acquires a slightly manic quality as he plays around with the harmonies.

No 4 (E minor) starts with a much slower, more wandering melody; it’s easy to forget you’re listening to a fugue although the main subject is always there in one of the lines, pulling the whole piece together.  This is a particularly complex fugue, and the notes I found about it indicate that it uses all of the imitative devices, including stretto (where the imitation starts before the subject has finished) and retrograde (where the line is played in reverse).

Many of the fugues are played with significantly less pedal than the preludes, more appropriate to the contrapuntal texture.  No 7 (A major) is one of the exceptions, it’s written in such a way that it can be pedalled throughout as it is based on the notes of a triad.  It sounds less obviously like a fugue but allows the listener to enjoy the rich harmonies.

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