Hidden Gems: Shostakovich – Five Preludes

OK, so I thought I knew everything that Dmitri Shostakovich had written. I was wrong. During some random browsing of the “library” at Hal Leonard (go to the About the Editor page to see a photo of this place), I found this set of five preludes he composed when he was a thirteen-year-old student at the Petrograd Conservatory. He selected these five for publication from a group of eight written as a contribution to a 24-prelude set with two other composition students.

Shostakovich has one of the most recognizable styles of any composer I can think of, but if I heard some of these pieces on the radio, I’d be stumped. His student work (including the lovely Piano Trio Op. 8) has traces of romanticism and other elements that separate it from the prickly, witty Shostakovich we know. Here’s a quick rundown of the pieces:

I. Built on an ostinato of staccato thirds. Floats in a static world of A minor/C major, with some chromatic interruptions that sound more Shostakovich-ish.

II. An even more plush pad of harmony, this time in G major. Undulating chords in the right hand give way to a grander statement with huge chords. I guess Shostakovich could reach a major tenth with inner notes when he was thirteen. Good for him.

III. An energetic allegro in 5/8 with the bass moving in octaves almost the whole time. Some pretty large right hand chords throughout this one too. I’ve seen this kind of thick harmony in early work like his first piano sonata, but he later abandoned the bombast in favor of lean counterpoint. I love the youthful exuberance here, a sense of trying to impress.

IV. This is the most striking of the set. Little yearning motives (leitmotifs?) stop and start, alternating una corde and tre corde pedal. Then he marks Andante amoroso, with gentle rolled chords at a dynamic of ppp. Did young Dmitri have a crush? The very last bar announces a new tempo of Andante cantabile, and a romantic-sounding phrase barely starts and then cuts off. And that’s the end! It’s fascinating stuff. I listened a few times, trying to pick up clues from this miniature that seems so personal and narrative. I’m still thinking about it.

V. A beautiful finish to the set. This one moves with sweet Russian-romantic poetry, showing Shostakovich’s great compositional instincts. It’s cold, with just a tiny light of warmth shining through, like a remote cabin in the forests of Siberia.

There tends to be controversy about digging up and publishing early works by major composers; some composers were extreme self-censors and only wanted their best work to be available to the public. But this set of preludes was published in 1966, during Shostakovich’s lifetime, so clearly he approved. I enjoy thinking about the master composer viewing proofs of these pieces before publication, having come so far on his compositional journey, remembering the days when he was just starting to see what was possible.

This edition is published by Sikorski. Check it out!

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