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29 January 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 7:36am

The light and shade of Shostakovich

Igor Levit brings dramatic contrasts to his performance of the preludes and fugues in their entirety, which marked the beginning of his artist residency at the Barbican.

By Emily Bootle

If Dmitri Shostakovich’s turbulent associations with the Soviet Union were not so well known, it is difficult to say whether we would hear all that came with them – emotional conflict, political obligation, irony – play out so clearly in his music. In his 24 Preludes and Fugues, though, it is virtually impossible to deny the influence. The cycle plays out in a state of near-constant tension. It all hangs in the balance, one that Russian-born pianist Igor Levit strikes in his performance of the preludes and fugues in their entirety (26 January), which marked the beginning of his artist residency at the Barbican.

Shostakovich, who was born in Saint Petersburg in 1906, established his career as a composer as the Soviet Union was founded in the early 1920s. In these early years he was popular and composed with abandon, experimenting with the avant-garde. But in 1936 Stalin saw his satirical opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and was displeased. It was attacked viciously in state newspaper Pravda as a “muddled stream of sounds”. Shostakovich adapted, not only to maintain a career, but to stay alive.

It is widely perceived that Shostakovich was able to realise his full creative potential after the death of Stalin in March 1953. His Tenth Symphony, which premiered in December that year, is seen as his watershed moment. But Shostakovich published his preludes and fugues, in tribute to Bach’s famous cycle, in 1950 to 1951, having been denounced by the state two years previously. The fractiousness of this period is apparent in both the fragility and defiance in the cycle and these contrasts define Levit’s performance. He maintains a constant sense of push and pull: shadows are deepened and rays of light are dazzling.

Soviet-approved music had to be expressive, understandable and convey a sense of optimism to those outside the union. But it was also forbidden to cohere too much to formal structure or to project any Western influence. Shostakovich’s position as an official Soviet composer always felt fragile, his political obligations often seeming in direct conflict with his natural artistic impulse. (This did not always preclude achievement: his Fifth Symphony, a piece of high Soviet regard and mainstream popularity, is still widely regarded as one of his greatest works.)

Levit harnesses this sense of restriction and release. In quiet sections he plays with an almost painful tenderness. The opening C major prelude is butter soft; the A major sparkles with fluidity, its partner fugue a flush of arpeggios. More intense moments are equally fluent. The E-flat minor prelude is characterised by deep, rolling tremolo. It is dark and deliberately Russian, with clear “Mussorgskian” influence. In the auditorium, a man with a large white beard begins to cough, rasping gutturally, and the sound is not altogether out of place.

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In fact, Levit’s playing has such a pronounced physicality that the ordinary human noises of the audience that punctuate each prelude and fugue – shuffling, coughing – feel almost continuous with the performance. Levit frequently stamps the ground for emphasis, and when he needs a boost in power he rises from his seat, almost to a full standing position. At more hushed moments, he seems as though he might crawl inside the piano. If at any moment one hand is mancipated, he uses it to conduct the other as it plays. Dressed in head-to-toe black, he and the piano comprise a kind of amorphous being.

Levit’s strength lies in his attention to detail as well as his physical presence. The cycle demands intellectual depth and technical prowess. Though he does not play from memory – and with a running time of three hours, you can sympathise – he knows every fugal subject like a friend, chuckling and sighing at each character. He respects the tenacity of each theme, elasticising tempo only sparingly.

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The pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who premiered the 24 Preludes and Fugues in 1952, said that Shostakovich’s cycle “can and must be compared to Bach’s”. Levit is experienced with Bach, having recorded the Goldberg Variations in 2016, and is at home in the baroque-style polyphony that pervades Shostakovich’s work, breathing air around the darker passages.

While Bach’s ascends chromatically, Shostakovich chose to construct his cycle around the circle of fifths. This lends the set both a fullness and an unresolvedness. The final prelude and fugue – D minor – harbours an epic accumulation of emotion and ends in an outburst of octaves that Levit plays with the thundering intensity of white water. Shostakovich ends in D major, nodding to his optimistic Soviet responsibilities and recalling the triumphant finale of his Fifth Symphony – and yet subverting tonal expectations. We are left yearning for the tranquillity of the first C major prelude, and for the cycle to start all over again. 

Igor Levit plays Shostakovich
Barbican Hall, London EC2Y

This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out