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Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues: Context, Style, Performance.

Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues: Context, Style, Performance By Mark Mazullo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. [xviii, 286 p. ISBN 9780300149432. $60.] Music examples, notes, discography, index.

The past decade has seen a burgeoning interest in the music and life of Shostakovich. Mark Mazullo here proffers an attractive if also slightly out-of-the-ordinary monograph to contribute to this growing body of scholarship. What is unusual is that this book is not intended primarily for musicologists, theorists, or scholars per se (p. xii). Mazullo wants it to have a wider readership and hence has collated his insights, gained through considerable experience studying, playing, listening, and teaching Shostakovich's op. 87 cycle of preludes and fugues for piano into a book designed for Shostakovich enthusiasts -- musicians and non-musicians alike -- with a basic understanding of music theory. Arousing further curiosity is the book's explicitly stated "non-thesis": to use the author's words, "it does not ... purport to prove anything about Shostakovich or his music" (p. xii). As such, this is a work of criticism written in a style similar to Donald Francis Tovey's memorable Essays in Musical Analysis (6 vols. [London: Oxford University Press, 1935-1939]).

Composed in 1950-51 in under five months, the Preludes and Fugues initially encountered the hostile reception of a Soviet state under the influence of Zhdanovism, which accused Shostakovich and notable contemporaries such as Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian of formalism and anti-Soviet tendencies. This gave way to a more favorable reaction thanks to the advocacy of the work's dedicatee, Tatiana Nikolayeva, who premiered it in December of 1952. Since that time, and more unreservedly since the composer's formal rehabilitation by state decree in 1958, Shostakovich's op. 87 has assumed a significant, almost legendary status in the Russian canon and the pianist's repertoire alongside Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier upon which it was modelled. The work took much longer to be accorded any recognition in the West, however, and has received little air time until fairly recently. Indeed, it was less than a decade after its composition that Western scholars, no doubt also reflecting some cultural and politically-motivated bias, condemned the work. Read for instance the comments of T. G. Edridge, who extolled the virtues of Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis, Reger's op. 99, and even Franz Reizenstein's contribution to the prelude-and-fugue genre, but derided Shostakovich's op. 87 with the statement that "although they may flicker into life occasionally, they remain on the whole an obdurately dull if impressive testimony of the skill of the most fugally minded of Russian composers" (T. G. Edridge, "Prelude and Fugue Relationships," The Musical Times 101, no. 1407 [May 1960]: 299).

Mazullo calls for a circumvention of politics in the assessment of Shostakovich's music and tries valiantly to evade the revisionist and counter-revisionist polemics that have plagued assessments of Shostakovich. Yet for Mazullo, this music is "political strictly by virtue of being personal" (p. 8). He also finds its challenging to conceal his sympathy for the revisionists' viewpoints (see pp. 57-58, 97, and 133 for examples). He also finds it tricky to reconcile what he believes is an invitation from the composer to "listen for the plot" (p. 196) -- the rationale behind his support for performers to add expressive gestures not necessarily marked in the score but perhaps implied through their own programmatic readings of it) -- with the fact that the preludes and fugues "possess neither an official nor a 'sub-textual' program" (p. 212). He attempts to reinforce the latter point through a rather vacuous exhortation "we need to focus on the 'whats' and the not the 'what ifs'" (p. 243), but one wonders if he believes that op. 87 can be considered prima facie a work of absolute music.

Mazullo does a commendable job in surveying each prelude and fugue, describing its sounding surface, phraseology, harmonic, rhythmic, and textural profiles, relationships between prelude and fugue, and narrative associations; and provides useful performance suggestions. In introducing the cycle, however, Mazullo neglects to consider it against the background of other contemporary compositions by Shostakovich, including the quartets, which demonstrate the composer's increasing interest in counterpoint. Shostakovich actually first showed signs of what was to become a preoccupation with baroque forms as early as the passacaglia in his Second Symphony (1927). This penchant remained with him as late as the Fifteenth Symphony (1971), which also evinces a passacaglia fourth movement. Also, while Mazullo asserts that Shostakovich's handling of fugue demonstrates some limitations, it would have been instructive to see more discussion of his formal innovations (such as Mazullo's comment on the formal-expressive allusion in the last measures of the preludes to the upcoming fugue), and some expansion on the point of fugal influences from composers such as Beethoven, Liszt, Glazunov, Busoni, and Reger.

Mazullo instructively uncovers thematic borrowings from Shostakovich's oeuvre represented throughout op. 87, and occasionally investigates autographs for valuable insights on expressive markings. He also duly exposes Shostakovich's references to Jewish elements throughout the cycle, employed by the composer not merely for their ability to add surface color to the melodic material but for their implications as a symbol of the eternal as well. This goes beyond the representation of dissidence commonly associated with the uncovering of Jewish motifs. In addition to referencing the F# minor prelude and fugue, however, Mazullo could have also made mention of preludes nos. 14 and 17, together with fugues nos. 16, 19 and 24, as manifesting Jewish elements.

Points left underdeveloped or requiring further exemplification include the suggestion of a fugato enlivened with stile antico harmonies (p. 82), the evocation of Russian folk song characteristics (p. 87), and the "aesthetic ideals of the European modernist movement" (p. 155) and its relationship to Shostakovich's musical personality. Further, his contention that "one would not say that the Preludes and Fugues are thoroughly conceived for the piano" (p. 46), no doubt connected to his advertisement for the transcriptions of the Calefax Reed Quintet which Mazullo believes are just as valid as any realization of this music on the piano, required more defense. Also, in his discussion of Shostakovich's use of chromatic displacement (extrapolating on Richard Bass's definition of the term) and its similarities to the harmonic practice of Prokofiev, Mazullo curiously overlooks the significant theories of modal lowering associated with Phrygian scales as defined in the work of Lev Mazel' and Aleksandr Dolzhansky.

On the other hand, the section on Shostakovich's use of rhetorical and thematic gestures (to borrow terms from Robert Hatten) is particularly illuminating when read against the cycle's reception history. Mazullo is not content with merely paraphrasing the existing scholarship on such topics, but goes further to posit a link between such gestures as ritenuto (which he discovers has been used by Shostakovich as synonymous with ritardando and to denote a gradual rather than abrupt slowing) and tenuto, their structural roles, and their importance in precipitating a process of defamiliarization (p. 110).

The last chapter, possibly the most thought-provoking of the book, attempts to get even closer to the true meaning of the preludes and fugues insofar as it "is located in their performance history, and in the continuing efforts by performers to keep them alive" (p. 248). Many issues are touched upon which could arguably have benefited from a more expansive discussion than this brief twenty-page chapter allows. Above all, however, one wishes for a more substantial engagement with Shostakovich's performance style, especially its contextualization within the Russian piano tradition. Mazullo, who is definitely not afraid to criticize Shostakovich as a pianist, speaks of his emotional reserve and anti-romantic/anti-sentimental performance traits, but tells us nothing of his teacher Leonid Nikolayev's influence on his pianistic style or of other encounters with pianists/pedagogues such as Alexander Siloti, Alexander Glazunov, or Elena Rozanova. These issues are all the more pertinent due to the fact that pianists as distinguished as Rachmaninoff were accused of the same tendencies, which I believe had its own unique motivations. Also, there could have been room in Mazullo's discussion for a more substantial comparison between the various pianists he comments on. Such a comparison could raise awareness of many new points: for example, is there any discernible difference in the interpretations of Russian-schooled and non-Russian schooled pianists? Further, for all the calumny heaped on Vladimir Ashkenazy, might there be an unexplored relationship between the composer's unfeeling performances and Ashkenazy's own "cold, bloodless, and perfunctory" (p. 256) interpretations?

The fundamental point of studying Shostakovich's pianism is not to collate data and evidence pertaining to performance practices for performers to replicate, but to listen to his interpretative approach as a reflection of his conception of his own music. With this knowledge as a background, we can inform our own ideas in the hope of achieving more authentic, sensitive, and/or unique interpretations. There is a school of thought that posits the existence of an authentic performance that is true to the original intentions of the composer. This school of thought then measures authenticity by using an established model (ideally a recording by the composer) as a yardstick for comparison. The other camp would paradoxically suggest that striving to replicate a model performance would constrain the piece. Thus, hermeneutically speaking, the score is either seen as a revered and precious object or as an incentive for artistic interpretation. In his endorsement of Nikolayeva's take on op. 87, Shostakovich undoubtedly believed that his own interpretative ideas were but one of a myriad of possibilities. Thus the performer's natural instinct, supposing it results from considerable exposure to the composer's oeuvre, philosophy, and performance practice, together with sustained involvement in the music itself, will provide the most ideal foundation to inform the performer's musical intuition. In the absence of such a holistic approach, the structured logic which must underpin every good performance will remain missing.

Finally, a minor quibble concerns the lack of italicization of foreign words (most of which are Italian tempo or expressive markings) which can sometimes impede reading. The occasional awkward collocation, expression, or word grouping can also challenge the reader. For examples see "nearly analogously" (p. 74), "out-of-tuneness" (p. 77), "fake-out" (p. 88), or even a legitimate use of the "head" (p. 139) which might require further definition for the jazz neophyte. Further, sometimes the prose, generally of the highest eloquence and lucidity, becomes a little too decorative, for example, "it is as if a flock of birds has flown just out of sight, having been revived by a cool drink" (p. 168). Perhaps the biggest drawback, however, are the occasional digressions that expand on points mentioned. While the information provided has relevance, it would appear to be more suited to an endnote or footnote. Examples of this occur in passages such as his discussion of tritone dominant substitution in the B Major Prelude, which tangentially refers to analogous usages of the technique in other of Shostakovich's works (p. 174). These are, however, trivial objections concerning a work written with great style and flair, which manages to put forward a compelling and cogent case for the art of Shostakovich, in particular its consideration through the lens of his most weighty instrumental work, the op. 87 preludes and fugues.


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Author:Rego, John
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 23, 2011
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