Recital Media Review Print

More Noteworthy Piano Preludes

February 28, 2013 - Williamsburg, MA:

Preludes: Jascha Nemtsov, piano: Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), 24 Preludes for piano, Op. 34 (1933); Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891-1953), 24 Preludes for piano (1934). Instrument by Bechstein. Profil (subsidiary of Hänssler) PH09040, © 2009, TT 64:23 (31:14 + 32:57), $18.

You have probably never heard of composer Vsevolod Zaderatsky. There’s a reason: he was consistently persecuted by the Soviets from the time they took power, and all of his music was destroyed when he was arrested and sent to prison in 1926. He was imprisoned until 1929 and sent to the Gulag in Siberia in 1937, where he managed to compose and re-compose some works using a pencil and telegram forms and plain paper from a notepad and then take them with him when he was finally released in 1939. These included a set of 24 preludes and fugues in all keys, a different set from this program (Shostakovich also wrote a later set of both preludes and fugues, Op. 87, in 1950.). The reason for his persecution is unclear and undocumented but appears to be simply because he was the piano teacher of Alexei, the heir-apparent to the Romanov throne, as well as the other children of Czar Nicolas II, just prior to the 1917 Revolution. He was drafted in 1916 and fought in WW I, but his service did not save him from the persecution. He did marry and his son is still alive. He was permitted to live in Moscow and participate in some of the cultural life there only between 1929 and 1934, and even then there was a ban on the performance of his music (Not a single composition was published during his lifetime.); he knew of Shostakovich and may have attended the première of his Preludes for piano on May 24, 1933 with the composer at the keyboard.

Both sets proceed through the keys in the same order, beginning with C major, but not in the chromatic order that J.S. Bach used in his Wohltemperierte Klavier. Instead, they both follow the order of Chopin’s Op. 28 (1836-39) set. There are similarities between these two sets, but differences as well: both show the influences of the various musical interests and fads of their time, including jazz rhythms, for example, with Zaderatsky’s being generally more adventuresome and more serious, occasionally even somber, and also higher in volume, therefore more forceful, less sedate and tranquil. Both sets have internal variety in general atmosphere/mood, rhythms, styles, and tempos, often alternating between faster and slower ones, with some involving dance rhythms like the waltz. Shostakovich’s range from about .75 to 2.25 minutes, but only 3 are over 2 minutes long, with the vast majority in the 1- to 1.5-minute range. The range of Zaderatsky’s is similar, likewise with only 3 over 2 minutes, and 5 are under 1 minute (1 at just over .5) vs 7 for Shostakovich, so even though most also fall in the 1- to 1.5-minute range, they all seem longer in spite of their total being only 1.75 minutes greater. At the risk of being accused of sacrilege, it seems to me that Zaderatsky’s are more interesting, attention-grabbing, captivating, and impressive than Shostakovich’s, which tend to seem more simplistic; they are pleasant and enjoyable, but not strikingly original, as are several of Zaderatrsky’s, which seem to take Chopin’s originality in the form into the 20th century while Shostalovich’s do not; his are progressive, but not revolutionary. Zaderatrsky’s also appear to be more challenging for the performer, although Shostakovich’s seeming simplicity may well be deceptive.

The booklet cover features what appears to be a photograph of an original art work by Birgit Fauseweh depicting the faces of the two composers, the left one in profile, the right one frontal. Biographical and program notes by the pianist are in German and English, with about 4 pages of each devoted to the composers, mostly to Zaderatsky, with only about 1 page to the works themselves, and 1 to the pianist, who was born in Magadan, the city closest to the Gulag, in 1963. Photos of both composers appear alongside the credits on the back cover with one of Zaderatsky on his liberation certificate and one of the pianist included (the former twice) with the notes inside. Track listings and timings are given only on the outside of the tray card and only in German; Shostakovich gave standard Italian tempo markings for his, but Zaderatsky did not.

This recording is significant because it is the world première one for the Zaderatsky and the sole one available, and because of its pairing with the Shostakovich set, its nearly exact contemporary. There are 24 competitors for the Shostakovich, including a justifiably well-received one (Decca 435055-2, © 1991, TT 76:16 = 29:06 + 47:00; Edison Award and Gramophone Award for Best Instrumental Recording in 1992) by the then young Finn, Olli Mustonen (b. 1967), that pairs them with the 25 Preludes, Op. 31 (1847), by Charles Valentin Alkan [Morhange] (1813-1888) that were available in only one other complete recording - by Lyon, France-born, Alkan specialist and advocate (and champion of other forgotten and neglected French composers for the piano, such as Alexis de Castillon de Saint-Victor) Laurent Martin (b. 1945), now out of print (Marco Polo 8.223284, © 1990, TT 67:10). These last are extremely varied and interesting, and also work through all the major and minor keys, beginning (and ending in this case, creating a cyclical effect similar to the repetition of the Air in JSB’s “Goldberg” Variations) with C major, but they follow neither the chromatic scale like JSB’s nor Chopin’s pattern like the Shostakovich and Zaderatsky sets, but rather progress by moving up a fourth and then down a third. (The key signatures are not given in the track listing for the Laurent recording.) The preludes range from just over 1 minute to 5.75 minutes, with the majority in the 1.5 to 3-minute range and 4 over 4 minutes in the Laurent performance, and from .5 to just under 4 minutes, with the majority in the 1.5- to 2.5-minute range and only 2 over 3 minutes in the Mustonen. Mustonen’s tempi are uniformly brisk; note that he shaves a full 10 minutes off Laurent’s more nuanced and varied reading across the 25 of the Alkan set, although they do not seem truncated or wrongly interpreted; he shaves 2 minutes off Nemtsov’s and nearly 5 minutes off Sherbakov’s readings of the Shostakovich set (see below). The pianos in both recordings of the Alkan set are unidentified, but they sound to my ears like Hamburg Steinways, likely suspects because of their recording venues: Blackheath Concert Hall, London, and Tonstudio van Geest, Heidelberg, in 1990 (Mustonen was 23!) and 1989 respectively. The piano in the Sherbakov, recorded at Potton Hall in Suffolk, UK, in 2001, is also unidentified, but sounds like a NY Steinway – they are brighter and have a less rounded sound..

The performance of this recording on a Bechstein is an important plus because it is a make that was common in Russia at the time and seems to suit the music particularly well. Bechsteins are generally more resonant, with a more harmonious and longer ring than Steinways, and also have a somewhat greater variety across the registers. The recording venue was the studio of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, whose acoustic seems to be very good. Nemtsov’s performance is impeccable and persuasive, bringing out all the nuances and varieties of the moods and spirits of the individual pieces. His playing of the Zaderatsky set strikes me as being more committed than that of the Shostakovich set, but without seeing the scores and their tempo and volume markings, I can’t be sure whether it is the result of his admitted advocacy – active promotion, even – of the music of this horribly mistreated composer whose outstanding qualities are only now being recognized – or of the composers’ instructions. Mustonen’s and Konstantin Sherbakov’s (b. 1963, like Nemtsov) recording (Naxos 8.555781, © 2003, TT 33:52) of the Shostakovich are also quite muted and subdued in relation to their mates (Shostakivich’s other works for piano in the case of Scherbakov).

All of these preludes can hold their own in interest and pleasure for the listener with those of Chopin and Debussy, and they are unjustifiably neglected in the recital repertoire. More pianists should become familiar with them through these recordings, obtain the scores, and offer selections from them along with selections from those other perennial audience favorites, and from the other sets reviewed in my previous piece, in “mix-ups” if not “mash-ups,” or even as encores. They all deserve to be much better known and more frequently heard.