Keith Jarrett himself must have expected wildly polarized reviews on his take of Shostakovich's preludes and fugues, and it's no wonder, as he is more popularly known as a modern jazz master.
As I have had access to a public radio station music library, I decided to spend a weekend comparing and contrasting the different recording of this Opus 87, with score in-hand, by Jarrett, Nikolayevna, and Ashkenazy. I rate Jarrett first, second place going to Nikolayevna, and Ashkenazy bringing up a rather indifferent rear.
Jarrett's interpretation seems to be most often panned on grounds that he "doesn't understand the music", which is sheer hogwash. Add this to the fact that most critics fail to state what are the prerequisites for understanding this music, and I suggest it's a lot more than understanding Shostakovich's "pain"; a rather over-romantic view of a composer who could and did write extremely emotional music, but also music with humor and grace. There's a lot more to Shostakovich than just "pain". Jarrett has obviously studied the pieces well, and plays each prelude and fugue with flawless technique and even daring interpretation that is notably original, the most obvious case being the C-major fugue being taken at what sounds like a *very* slow pace. But having access to the score, he's taking it at the specified tempo: 92-to-the-quarter, interpreting the "alla breve" by playing very legato. So why do the other recordings have it so fast?
Jarrett's A-major fugue shines like the sun; his A flat-major fugue becomes a giddy, but slyly understated dance. (I should add here that in the A-flat prelude Ashkenazy makes a rather shocking note discrepancy in the main theme that either passed a producer's ear or was mis-read in the printed edition.) The more somber pieces are played with respect and deep concentration.
Add to this ECM's top-shelf engineering that provides a realistic, deep piano sound, and you've got a five-star set in your hands.
The pieces were written for Nikolayevna, but her autumn-years recording seems a bit one-dimensional to my ears at times, and the dynamics are a bit narrow as well, although she obviously has played these pieces for a very long time and seems to have absorbed them to the point where her interpretations seem more introverted, if that is your taste. The piano sound is broad, though it has a bit more hammer sound than Jarrett's.
For Ashkenazy, I have nothing exceptional to report. The Decca sound is dry, his rubato doesn't work for me and almost sounds as if he is unsure of himself in places, and overall it doesn't seem to add any air of authority or authenticity. Add to this Decca's assertion that since Askenazy is Russian, his recording is the final word on it, which is pretty trite.
Jarrett gives a modern, up-to-date performance that I think will stand the test of time, while the Askenazy will ultimately be re-packaged as a budget set.
Go with Jarrett; the man who dares to play classical music that is absolute, stripped bare of tuxedo snobbery. He gives his all for this one, and it shows.