Shostakovich was a pianist—a very good one. And he was a prolific composer. Given these things, he wrote less piano music than one might have expected. He has the two piano concertos (as he has two violin concertos and two cello concertos). He has two piano sonatas, both of which are rarely heard. In a New York recital last season, Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan pianist, played the Sonata No. 2—a happy surprise (although it is a very, very unhappy piece).

Probably the best thing Shostakovich ever did for the piano was write twenty-four preludes and fugues—which he did in the first two years of the 1950s. “I like all music, from Bach to Offenbach,” the composer once quipped. He was a musical omnivore. But like all musicians, or most musicians, he had a special appreciation of Bach. You could also call it a “reverence.” Bach, as you know, wrote twenty-four preludes and fugues. He did it twice, in his Book 1 and Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Shostakovich? Just the once.

Last night in Carnegie Hall, Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist, played the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. Like Shostakovich, Levit is catholic in his tastes. He plays everything, and plays it devotedly. He is certainly devoted to Bach. And to these Shostakovich preludes and fugues.

In Zankel Hall in February 2017, he began a recital with three of these preludes and fugues—three pairings, I mean (with one prelude and one fugue in each pairing). That summer, he played all twenty-four in one fell swoop, at the Salzburg Festival. I reviewed that recital—I’m tempted to say “event”—here. Every word of that review, five years ago, applies to the recital, the event, last night, in Carnegie Hall. Read that review if you like. But I will say a few things—a few different things, I hope—here and now.

Maybe I could start with something about the work itself—about the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. The opening pairing, the C-major, is a winner. It is one of the best, one of the most wondrous, things in the whole “book.” Nothing surpasses it, in my view. And the same is true of Bach! Of his Book 1 and Book 2, both! In all three of these cases—one Shostakovich and two Bachs—the C-major pairing is hard to improve on.

Every composer knows you have to begin well. And to end well. (I will address the latter point soon.)

Igor Levit is a brainy pianist, a feeling pianist, a virtuoso, a poet. He is un-pigeonholable. He has all the tools, all the talents. He pedals very shrewdly—this is an important art, and it was on display last night. The preludes and fugues are different. I mean, the pairings are different from one another. They are different in tempo, in mood, in character. The pianist has to be different too (adaptable). Levit was like an actor, slipping naturally into different roles. Now he was grave, now he was playful. Now he was spiky, now he was cantabile.

Levit is his own man, but he is not eccentric. He serves the composer. Glenn Gould thought you had to stand out from “conventional” interpretations. (He said so.) That great pianist lapsed into eccentricity. Levit would rather be right than unconventional or exotic. He is a brilliant musician and a sensible one, both.

Always, he is alive. He plays as if he were engaged in the most important thing in the world. In his hands, the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues were not museum pieces, or even studies. They pulsed with life, speaking to everyone in the hall, I bet.

Shostakovich’s D-flat-major fugue is a kind of showpiece—so is the prelude, for that matter. An invigorating pairing. After Levit had played it, there were whoops in the audience. The pianist turned and nodded, as if to say, “That’s right.” Then the audience felt free to break out into applause—a nice moment.

People say that these preludes and fugues are private pieces, written for the personal musical and intellectual satisfaction of the composer, living in those punishing circumstances, i.e., the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin. This is true. And yet, as I listened to the closing prelude and fugue—the D-minor—and especially the fugue, I could not help thinking, “He’s composing an ending. A real ending, to a long and great work. This is boffo. The Preludes and Fugues don’t just peter out. He is capping them.”

I don’t know. I’d like to ask him.

Let me tell you a secret, since it’s just you and me talking, with no one else listening. When I listen to the Preludes and Fugues at home—complete—I sometimes skip over the items I don’t especially like. There’s no doing that, in a live performance. You’re in for every note. I believe it’s true that Richter—the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter—would play only select preludes and fugues, which ticked off the composer, understandably.

Finally, I would like to pose a question, and I will do it by pasting some of my review from Salzburg, in 2017:

. . . Levit played just a few of the preludes and fugues in February. Last night, he played all twenty-four pairs. That is about two and a half hours of music. Is that wise? Is that sensible? Is that musical? Are those preludes and fugues meant to be heard complete?

I have long complained about a completeness craze in music. Pianists think they have to play all four Chopin ballades. I doubt the composer ever had any such thought. Pianists think they have to play all twenty-four Chopin preludes. Rare is the program that includes just a few. I even hear all four Chopin scherzos, which is absurd.

How about the preludes and fugues of Bach? How about the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier? When was the last time you heard just a sampling on a pianist’s program? I can’t remember the last time I heard a sampling—a few of those (immortal) preludes and fugues.

I am not convinced that Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are best showcased when played complete. I think of these things as individual piano pieces, or individual pairs. I think there is a numbing effect, when the preludes and fugues are played at one go. It is a long, long sit—an endurance test for the audience member as much as for the pianist. But if Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are to be showcased complete, leave it to Levit.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.