I have three recordings of Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues.

Keith Jarrett, who does bother some folks with capricious phrasing and rushed tempi, but whom I forgive everything, all of it, even the acts of unkindness to small animals as a child, while he’s crashing through the 24th fugue. An exciting performance. Recorded in 1992.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is my overall favorite. He’s just as fabulous with this as he is with Prokofiev. This is also the newest recording of the work, it being recorded only last year.

Tatiana Petrovna Nikolaeva, who was the source of it all, being the woman whose performance of Book 2 of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier one fine July day in 1950 so inspired Shostakovich that he thought, “I can do that!” And finished his own set of 24 preludes and fugues before the next February was out. She premiered the work the next year and has, at least until Ashkenazy’s recording last year, been one of the definitive performers of the work. (Shostakovich himself never recorded the entire work.) Nikolaeva begins at a pace that can fairly be described as stately and seems agonizingly slow if your only exposure has been to Ashkenazy and Jarrett. However, after the first Prelude, her pace feels quite right, and it comes as a shock, then, to notice that it takes three CD’s for her version rather than the two required for Jarrett and Ashkenazy. Sure doesn’t seem like it’s that much slower, and wouldn’t I love to hear an earlier recording of hers.

Jarrett – 135 minutes, 21 seconds. Feels every bit as fast as it is.
Ashkenazy – 141 minutes, 43 seconds. Doesn’t feel almost as fast as Jarrett.
Nikolaeva – 168 minutes, 25 seconds. Doesn’t feel nearly that slow.

OK, OK, I had to get out the CD’s for spelling/fact checking, and my calculator to add up timings to satisfy my curiosity.

I love keyboard music. Last summer I read a review of the recent release of Ashkenazy’s performance. I had never even heard of the work, but the review was enticing, so I ordered it. I loved it. I loved it so much that I just played it over and over and over….at increasing volume. And none of that Gouldian humming along with it, I’m singing along full throat: YAH-da-da-da-da-da, YAH-da-da-da-da-da… (in #24, which just finished).

Then I bought Jarrett’s and Nikolaeva’s versions. Now I alternate among the three.

Do you know this work?

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