Here is a new recording of a relatively modern masterpiece, the 24 Preludes and Fugues composed in a short period (October 1950 to February 1951). The story goes that Shostakovich was so struck by Tatiana Nikolaeva's performance of Bach's Well-Tempered Klaviar given at the Bicentennial Bach competition in Leipzig that he immediately set to work on his own homage to both the composer and the performer. Nikolaeva, the dedicatee and first public performer, became completely identified with this work and recorded it three times. We can say perhaps that her interpretation has set the standard against which others should now be judged. Most recordings fit neatly onto two discs but Melnikov's spacious effort does not, leaving the final prelude and fugue to a third disc. In compensation, you can turn that disc over and find a DVD with an interview of the pianist by none other than Andreas Staier. Melnikov has also written revealing liner notes to compete this luxurious package.
This recording has already won high praise in some quarters, most notably from eminent New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, but sadly, I don't share his enthusiasm. Melnikov's recording does not captivate me. I must take issue with several aspects of his playing. First, his phrasing, foursquare and at times disjointed, does not convince me; several times I found myself surprised by his lack of imagination. While his articulation is excellent at any tempo, where is the flair, poetry and daring of a great artist? Secondly, it takes more than technical facility to make sense of the fugue, and here we have 24 of them! To convey the true essence of fugal writing requires defining the various strands into separate and identifiable voices, but unlike Nikolaeva, Richter, Ashkenazi or Keith Jarrett, Melnikov tends to play all parts equally. I have similar issues with the widely praised Bach of András Schiff, while much preferring artists like Tureck and Brendel who manage the extraordinary multiple voicing I crave with apparent ease.
The first authority on this particular music is naturally the composer himself, and his performance reveals a work of great interest, variety and intellectual challenge. Lines are much clearer, phrasing far more natural and poetic, with exemplary voicing. But for its not-ready-for-prime-time sound, limited availability, and the incompleteness of the set, I might have said we have a winner. But Shostakovich had no appetite for retakes, so it's not note-perfect, and the set is incomplete and not widely available. Nikolaeva is the safe choice here, and there is much to admire in her exuberant renditions -- big, bold and often beautiful. She lacks the last word in virtuosity, and you may prefer the cooler and more technically accurate Jarrett, taking a break from his jazz beat.
What the world needs now is a first-rate performance in outstanding modern sound. I was hoping this would be it, but not only does the playing disappoint, so also does the recording quality, which I find relatively shallow and steely. I would direct your attention instead to another new release, from Jenny Lin on Hannsler Classic. Here is a superb-sounding, full-blooded account (on two discs) that puts even Nikolaeva in the shade.