at Orchestra Hall

October 18 and 25

Opening the Allied Arts Association’s piano series was a remarkable pair of recitals by Tatiana Nikolaeva, who has become a legend around the world for her transcendent performances of Bach and other masters. The recitals, on two consecutive Sundays, consisted of Dmitry Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a massive three-hour cycle of brief movements written 40 years ago for Nikolaeva herself.

Shostakovich, who died in 1975, discovered Nikolaeva in 1950, when she was 26 and he was a judge at a Bach keyboard competition she won. He was so taken by her interpretations of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier that he began his own series as an homage to the Baroque master, as well as to Chopin, who had paid homage to Bach with his own series of preludes. Two years later Nikolaeva played the world premiere of Shostakovich’s cycle so convincingly that she has virtually owned it since.

At her Orchestra Hall debut, Nikolaeva’s interpretations revealed Shostakovich’s miniatures to be more than mere evocations of Bach’s dancing pulsations and Chopin’s idealized painting. Those glories were there, though partly transformed into stinging neo-Baroque satire and ravishing post-Romantic tone colors. But these preludes and fugues also transform beauty and meaning drawn from the whole Western musical tradition–most clearly from Schubert, Liszt, and Mahler, but also from many others half heard in the music’s emotional depths.

Of course Beethoven did this with his legacy from Mozart and Haydn; Brahms did the same with those masters as well as Mendelssohn and Schumann. But it was surprising to hear Shostakovich proclaiming his place in that succession so explicitly and movingly.

We have known for decades that Shostakovich was a political commentator in his music. The political ironies of his major symphonies–the exaggerated patriotic frenzy at the end of the Fifth or the brassy, pompous portrait of Stalin in the middle of the Tenth–are hard to miss once pointed out (Soviet audiences apparently didn’t need program notes). But in recent years we have begun to see through the party-line smoke screen he threw around many works to protect himself, and he is now venerated as a dissident saint both here and in Russia.

Yet people who knew him say Shostakovich was not primarily a political person but rather a humanist who sought spiritual values in artistic creation. And it is this side of him that Nikolaeva’s lofty, gleaming interpretations brought out. The first prelude conjures up the frozen, layered emotional world of his political symphonies, but the connected fugue unmistakably soars up to the ideal skyscape of the Classical-Romantic tradition.

As the cycle unfolds, rapid, angular images of human striving–Shostakovich’s characteristic satire mellowed by the Classical tradition–alternate with spans of slow music of unforgettable breadth and beauty. The fourth prelude and fugue builds on the traditional ideal, but a few minutes later the sixth prelude lowers a cloud of dissonance. The subdued lyricism of the attached fugue is a profoundly moving image of life surviving the cruelest trials. The eighth fugue gives its peasant-style theme harmonic twists that make it a cry of the heart, a desperate plea that haunts the listener.

Yet the cycle also includes moments in the lively vein Shostakovich used for satirical political purposes in his early works. The 12th fugue, with its compassionate resignation, also includes a stinging energy, and the 15th fugue is so electrically dissonant it nearly brings back the political world. But the 16th fugue quickly restores a lyrical warmth.

At the end of the work simple melodies, reiterated in a folk style and intoned in the grand sonorities of Mussorgsky, take over, perhaps suggesting a reverence for simple human virtues and pre-Soviet traditions as bulwarks against the distractions and terrors of contemporary life.

Shostakovich’s extraordinary cycle, which appeared in the immediate wake of a crackdown on the Soviet Union’s most renowned composers for not adhering to the propagandistic priorities of “socialist realism,” celebrates artistic values. And in rejecting the crude story lines and trite moral lessons demanded by the party, its artistic and humanistic direction makes a political statement far broader and deeper than simple opposition to the regime.

The universal relevance and appeal of Shostakovich’s musical vision of life and inner liberty was demonstrated masterfully by Nikolaeva. It was worth the decades of waiting to hear her.