Ignat Solzhenitsyn, in his recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) at the American Philosophical Society, played Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 [Sel.] and Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. However, at times he seemed to be playing the Schubert as if it might have been Beethoven’s 33rd — with mixed results.
A lifetime of catching up
One might imagine Schubert, Beethoven’s short-lived contemporary, striving to catch up to his beloved master in a life that would be barely half as long. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies in a 55-year life; Schubert wrote roughly as many in his 31. Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets; Schubert got up to 15. Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, culminating in his 32nd, came in a burst as his Opp. 109, 110, and 111; Schubert’s last three, all written in the last year of his life, are a similar triad of D. 958 to 960.
As with Beethoven, too, Schubert’s late maturity took music to new and still unsurpassed frontiers. Had he had the years, say, of his contemporary, Giacomo Rossini, who fell silent at 37 but lived more than twice as long, the music of the 19th century might have been far different.
The last three Schubert sonatas are marked by dramatic episodes that fairly explode the music, and that seem contained in it only by miracle. The episode in D. 960 is more muted than its compeers and does not occur until the work’s finale. Solzhenitsyn appeared to be looking for it in sharply accented passages and runs earlier in the score, an effect more startling than convincing.
It’s hard to blame anyone for trying to stretch perfection, and Solzhenitsyn played with commitment and conviction. There was nothing flashy about his interjections. Particularly in the 20-minute opening movement, he strove to maintain momentum while projecting the music’s architectural sweep.
Shostakovich finds solace
Solzhenitsyn opened his program with four selections from Dimitri Shostakovich’s set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. As with late Schubert, the symphonic Shostakovich specialized in large-scale structures, but in these pieces he showed a searching mastery of more compressed ones as well. His inspiration, as their title suggests, was Bach, and Shostakovich began their composition in 1950, the bicentennial of Bach’s death, completing the entire set two years later.
His immersion in Bach at this stage in his career was not merely a question of chronology. Shostakovich had only recently been denounced by Stalin’s musical apparatchik, Andrei Zhdanov, for traits of Western decadence and deprived of his teaching livelihood. Forced to curry favor by composing such potboilers as "The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland," he found in Bach a refuge for his art that might avoid censure; Bach, at least, was not formally “bourgeois.”
Solzhenitsyn chose for his performance the first and last of the set, with numbers eight and 19 in between, all played sequentially. The First Prelude and Fugue, in C Major, begins with a deceptively simple theme that — as so often in Shostakovich — sounds like the composer humming one thing to himself and thinking another. The paired forms of the prelude and fugue mirrored this double expression, making of the whole set an autobiography that resists ready decoding.
Solzhenitsyn took a gravid approach, displaying Shostakovich’s ability to express the deeply personal in classically abstract forms, and lending it a brooding, meditative unity. This came at the expense of some of the composer’s characteristic shifts of mood, especially in the Eighth Prelude and Fugue. But one can’t cover all the bases in a work of such scope.
The set’s culminating work, with its chorale-like prelude and its daunting double fugue, is one of the striking examples of 20th-century pianism, was projected with exceptional power and virtuosity.