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on 2 January 2015
The Shostakovitch Preludes and Fugues have long hovered at the edge of my awareness. I’ve wanted to like them, but could never shake the feeling that they were too lightweight to sustain my interest across the more than two hours it takes to hear them all. Sviatoslav Richter’s performances suggest there’s more substance to them, but he only recorded a handful. And in spite of Tatiana Nikolayeva’s high reputation in these works, I could never warm up to her 1987 recording. (I’m told her 1962 recording is better, but it’s not easily available.) So the Op. 87 continued to elude me.

Enter Australian born Roger Woodward, a pianist who until now was unknown to me. As pointed out by others, he dispatches the entire work in two hours and 26 minutes. Compare this to Nikolayeva’s epic 2 hours and 48 minutes in her 1987 recording. But timing alone doesn’t redeem Woodward. (If one is merely looking for a race to the finish line, Keith Jarrett polishes off the same work in a fleet 2 hours and 15 minutes.) A player who sacrifices expressive detail for momentum is no musician. Woodward, happily, is a musician. Never does he sound as though he’s in over his head. His playing is always deft, sensitive, and colorful.

This 1975 recording has gained an unfair reputation for being too brisk. Most of the tempos, however, are either close to or a bit below Shostakovitch’s own tempo markings. Only a few are significantly faster, and they’re never less than musically natural and convincing. In fact, Woodward’s playing here can justifiably be compared to Richter’s, and that’s rarefied company. One listens in vain for a hint of awkwardness or strain—such problems don’t exist for Woodward here. Like Richter, he’s a straight-ahead interpreter who doesn’t indulge in silly “look at me” expressive gimmicks. That’s not to say he’s dry. (Sample his luminous playing of the A Major fugue.) Rather, he lets the music speak for itself, and his prodigious technique never calls attention to itself at the expense of the music.

Given the quality of Woodward’s playing, I’m surprised he’s not better known. One reason may be that he’s heavily into contemporary music. That’s enough to put off many listeners. And judging from what I’ve read, he has a reputation for being a bit of a pill. Such reputations should be regarded with suspicion, as they’re often unjustified. True or not, it’s of no importance to me. While I might not want Woodward living in my basement, he’ll hold an honored place in my CD collection.

Some may find it annoying that, on these CDs, each prelude and fugue shares a track. Thus, you can’t skip directly to the beginning of a fugue. But it should be noted that Shostakovitch marks “attacca” at the end of each prelude. So one can argue that tracking each prelude and fugue together is faithful to the composer’s intent.

For my taste, Shostakovitch’s Op. 87 is best served when it’s not treated as a musical Mount Everest. A monumental approach bloats this music into something it’s not. Woodward’s lithe playing conjures a minor miracle, recreating the composer’s curiously elusive and enigmatic voice.
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Outside of Australia it is not so easy as it should be to find the recorded work of Roger Woodward. This two-disc set is all the more welcome for that reason, and on top of that it provides a lengthy essay by the maestro himself, not so much a liner note as a full-blown dissertation. Shostakovich's 24 preludes and fugues follow the same key-sequence that Chopin's 24 preludes do rather than Bach's own simpler scheme. They express a wide range of moods and emotions, but in my own opinion they are best heard as `absolute' music, with Shostakovich once again following the lead of his two great forerunners in that respect as well as in the purely formal matter of the key-selection.

There is no way that Shostakovich's symphonies and string quartets can be thought of as absolute music. They document the mind and soul of a Soviet composer trying to survive the horrors of the second world war and negotiate the minefield of Stalin's reign of terror. The preludes and fugues seem to me to have offered him an escape into a more peaceful inner sanctuary, and if I am reading Woodward correctly he suggests much the same. If this is what our music here is all about then it is how we should understand the interpretations offered. Woodward makes no attempt to import external emotion, still less any pictorial effects, into the self-contained world of the preludes and fugues. I find no sense of inhibition or `restraint' in his playing. What I do find is a self-coherent approach that keeps unity within the variety of 24 separate but spiritually related works. Given that Woodward is not as familiar as he might be, I was searching for some kind of parallel for his style, something that might convey an impression of what someone new to the playing might expect to find. Alas what I kept coming up with was even more obscure than what I was trying to illustrate, but as it is from a set of pieces nearly contemporary with Shostakovich's preludes and fugues, I shall try it out and hope it conveys anything to anyone. The resemblance that I found was in a superbly controlled touch with never a hint of forced or ugly tone, together with a well calculated sense for the best tempi both for the pieces considered individually and in their place in relation to their companions. Does all that sound a bit too `correct'? I know that to some eminent critics it definitely does. I also know that comparisons between Shostakovich and Messiaen are not (to put it mildly) something one encounters every day. However, telling it the way I find it, what Woodward's playing in Shostakovich reminds me of is the ultra-civilised sound of Michel Beroff in Messiaen's Vingt Regards.

Woodward's long companion essay deserves the kind of careful reading that liner notes don't usually call for. Oddly, the bit that you can probably skip is what he calls his `rapid tourist guide' to the separate pieces. It is almost as if he is apologising for this short excursus into the standard realms of programme-notery. As for the rest, it is a deep and thoughtful dissertation on the historical and cultural context of the works themselves and of their creator.

The recorded sound is a touch reticent, and I suggest a little boosting of the volume. Give or take any such minor adjustments to the sound-controls, I find this type of sound highly appropriate to the playing it records. The playing it records is playing of the highest distinction. If you had known of Roger Woodward mainly through the film Shine, about the sad history of mental instability that afflicted his early rival David Helfgott, this is a chance to correct such a perspective while at the same time gaining important insights into important 20th century musical masterpieces that shine a special light on their composer.
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