Book Reviews 34

Yevgeny Mravinsky; The Noble Conductor

Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues: Contexts, Style, Performance

34_Tassie /

Yevgeny Mravinsky; The Noble Conductor
Gregor Tassie
ISBN: 0-8108-5427-9
Published in 2005 by Scarecrow Press, USA
304 pages

This is the only current English-language biography dedicated to the famed and fabled maestro so associated with Shostakovich’s career as a symphonic and concerto composer, and as such is a potentially valuable asset to those listeners or readers eager to know much more about Mravinsky, both from a musical and purely biographical point of view. The term “potentially” is no accident – if the book treats through impressive minutiae the early periods in Mravinsky’s pre-revolutionary life and plots his family’s mixed fortunes as old Russia was turned on its head through revolutions and wars, and if Tassie’s use of Russian-language sources is invaluable, very many stones are left unturned. And those that are turned reveal little other than a superficial moss. Stylistically Tassie’s approach is far better suited to a library shelf than a coffee table – endless, plodding facts and references mask the individual characters of many of the participants in what was a glittering and in many ways unlikely career in a totalitarian state in which the individual was intended to be completely and utterly subservient.

Contemporary musical perception of Mravinsky’s methods and their results in the concert hall and recording studio varies wildly from benevolent father-like guidance and wisdom resulting in superlative interpretations of admittedly a fairly limited repertoire, to the ogre-like despotism of a baton-wielding dictator who drilled his performers to produce perfection – at a price. Jansons’ and Temirkanov’s opinions spring to mind, respectively, but in this book Tassie maintains a reverential view of the conductor, never really questioning the desirability of his rehearsal techniques, or his mental brutality in respect to his players. This is Tassie’s prerogative, of course, but one that is ultimately too polarised.

Aside the points ascribed above, the book’s scale and depth of research is excellent, as is (fortunately) its index and footnoting. From a Shostakovich point of view a great deal of light is shed on the manner in which conductor and composer first broached each new work to emerge, the insights into Mravinsky’s influence on Shostakovich who, in spite of his reputation for never (or rarely) changing a note of his music, once set to manuscript, often did amend and adjust his scores in respect of balance or ensemble, at Mravinsky’s behest.

If there is one conspicuous question that any authoritative biography of Mravinsky should be able to tackle, and ideally to resolve, it is surely that of Mravinsky’s not premiering Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony. However the circumstances and in the end the probably reasons are somewhat skirted around by Tassie, with the preferred reason being the terminal illness suffered by his wife at the time, in a chapter entitled ‘The Unfortunate Thirteenth’. Wholly typical of this book is this passage:

“The failure of Mravinsky to conduct the premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony is one of the significant points in the conductor’s career. The reasons are disparate and unclear, as the conductor rarely responded as to why he never conducted this work, or indeed any other. However, Mravinsky’s primary stimulus in repertoire was an unvarying craving for artistic fulfillment. Politics and culture he held incompatible – more so statecraft hindered the arts – and he withstood any endeavor to bind power battles with the arts.

The Philharmonic did not have its own professional chorus, and several choirs in the city worked in partnership with the orchestra: the Glinka State Choir, the Conservatoire Students Choir, and the Kirov Theatre Chorus. During the 1960s and until the 1970s, there did not exist a first-class professional choir, and frequently ensembles from Latvia, Estonia, or as far away as Armenia would be invited for concert performances of major works; sacred music was banned until the late 1980s, and even a rendering of Mozart’s Requiem would require permission from the Party cultural department. Nor did Mravinsky enjoy any rapport with the conductors of the city choirs, none of whom aspired to the ethics that he himself savored. The impeccable Glinka State Choir had reached its all-time low, the Kirov was constrained by the theater’s schedules, and similar problems hindered the Conservatoire Choir. Except for a rendition in the previous year, of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, in which the mixed choir from the Glinka State Choir was employed, a full ten years had elapsed since Mravinsky had worked with any choral group. The concerts in October 1952 of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture had followed
triumphant readings that year of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Prokofiev’s oratorio On Guard of Peace.

There is another explanation why Mravinsky never conducted the Thirteenth, and that lies in its musical form; throughout his career, Mravinsky had been discreet about such things, but if there prevailed problems in musical content or form, he would be averse to go back to a work. Several symphonies by Shostakovich, including the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth, he never scheduled. Mravinsky was discriminating in his choice of scores from whatever source, and many choral works were forsaken, including Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliet. On one occasion, Vavilina asked Mravinsky why he didn’t conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to which the conductor replied, “What, and work again with soloists and a choir? On no account!” The slightest imperfection – evident only to Mravinsky – would result in a work being abandoned or conceded to one of his assistants, and this is what happened with Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony in B major. The Thirteenth was given over to Igor Blazhkov, who conducted the symphony, using the original texts (now banned) with the Philharmonic, using the Male Voice Choir of the Glinka Choir and a local student choir on 11 December 1966.

The existence of any fear or reluctance in Mravinsky’s heart to performing the Thirteenth can be excluded beyond doubt. The conductor had defended Shostakovich’s music so many paying no heed to bans when his actions could have easily inflicted serious consequences on both his own career and those of his musicians. The grand mystery behind why Mravinsky did not premiere Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony in 1962 was in his wife’s terminal disease. On the very day that Shostakovich phoned the conductor at home, Mravinsky had learned that his wife’s illness had been mistakenly diagnosed and that her medical condition was a rare, incurable bone cancer myeloma multiplex. Just a few months before, the Mravinskys had been on top of the world, with fresh tributes and success, and now a debut tour to America beckoned. The urgent phone call from his long-standing colleague and friend Dmitry Shostakovich on 9 October 1962 had come at the wrong time. Shostakovich’s first wife had died from a comparable disorder nonetheless, Mravinsky could not share with Shostakovich such a private predicament – it was quite beyond so introverted, noble, and deeply private a human being as Yevgeny Mravinsky.”

The new book focusing on the life and work of Kirill Kondrashin from Scarecrow Press: Kirill Kondrashin: His Life in Music, also by Gregor Tassie will be reviewed in the next edition of the Journal.


34_Mazullo /

Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues: Contexts, Style, Performance
by Mark Mazullo
Yale University Press, 2010.
ISBN 0300149433
286 pages.

Sixty years after its premiere, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues is finally getting its due. For decades after completion in 1951, the work stood on the sidelines as a curiosity by a composer better known for chamber and orchestral music, for whom compositions for solo piano remained an exception. The partial performances of the set that were recorded by high-profile pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, and by the composer himself, offered glimpses of the full score’s power and originality. As late as 1990, fifteen years after the composer’s death, the Preludes and Fugues remained largely unsung. By that time only two complete recordings had appeared, on discs that are still hard to obtain, by pianists whose name recognition was not sufficient in itself to gain the work any wide popularity. But since 1990 the fortunes of Shostakovich’s magnum opus for solo piano have begun to change. More performances of the complete cycle – seven to be exact – have appeared on disc in the last three years than in any similar period. Despite this spotty recording history and somewhat mixed reception, the work is increasingly being acknowledged as a masterpiece and a worthy companion to Bach’s iconic 48.

This, the first full-length English-language study of the cycle, treats it with the perspective it deserves. Author Mark Mazullo embraces the score from multiple perspectives: as musicologist, educator, and performer. Mazullo, who chairs the music department at Macalester College (St Paul, Minnesota), states in the preface that the book is not intended for the musicologist or the music theorist, but rather was written as a critical guide for the listener, and the teacher and performer of the music. In other words, it is written for practical rather than for ivory tower consumption. With his eloquent, often poetic prose, and multifactorial approach, Mazullo treats his subject with an ingratiating depth and breadth that will engage music lovers of all categories.

The book is cast in three parts, the centrepiece of which consists of 24 instalments dealing with each prelude and fugue individually. Rather than surveying the entries in numerical order, however, Mazullo takes a more aerial view, subdividing the 24 into four groupings – under the rubrics ‘Personalities in Pairs’, ‘Slow Tendencies’, ‘Active Surfaces’, and ‘Completing the Cycle’ – each of which surveys a selection of six preludes and fugues that are related in some conceptual or expressive fashion.

Mazullo’s overarching thesis, though, is that they are not merely a collection of isolated miniatures, but collectively form a global or “teleological” narrative, a deliberately guided course of expressive, formal, and textural evolution. He sees the work making its way from a “graceful manner of light-heartedness in the cycle’s first half, to tentativeness and uncertainty in its second, to an epic climax in the [final] D Minor Prelude and Fugue.” He sees the succession of keys in the Shostakovich cycle, in riding the circle of fifths, to be conducive to the creation of such an overarching conception. This stands in contrast to the chromatically rising succession of keys in Bach’s two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a layout that is the result of a didactic rather than an aesthetic impulse.
Comparison of the Shostakovich cycle with Bach’s, and also with another celebrated 20th-century companion to the Bach, Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, leads to a number of poignant observations. Whereas one finds a comprehensive display of fugal techniques in both the Hindemith and Bach cycles, throughout the Shostakovich one finds a dogged adherence to a single formal model, specifically, the use of the stretto principle for the culminating section of each of the fugues. This “comfortable accessibility” of form in the Shostakovich has all to do with its distinctive artistic goals. In contrast to the pedagogically motivated Hindemith cycle, whose comparative tonal organization Mazullo touches upon in fascinating detail, Shostakovich sought to create, according to Mazullo, a narrative rich in expressive candour, with “emphasis on climax and catharsis”.

The manner in which Shostakovich achieves these artistic goals lies at the heart of the book. Mazullo carefully examines the various aspects of defamiliarisation or “enstrangement” that constitute the foundation of Shostakovich’s aesthetic. These tendencies represent ways of making familiar musical objects unfamiliar, of drawing attention to the artistry and individuality of a composition. In this context, Mazullo pays much attention to Shostakovich’s idiosyncratic use of modal patterns, often through lowered degrees of the scale. However, an equally important yet far less studied category of defamiliarisation is the composer’s peculiar manner of stretching the elements of time and rhythm. This Shostakovich accomplishes through the nuanced use of the ritenuto, which Mazullo identifies as being the most frequently occurring marking in the entire collection. In the section entitled “Slow Tendencies” Mazullo isolates the preludes and fugues (numbers 4, 6, 8, 12, 13, and 14) that prominently exhibit just such characteristics – the lugubrious, the hesitating, the introspective – that he sees dominating the score. Mazullo finds the most captivating instance of the ritenuto in a passage in Prelude number12 where its single use occurs unexpectedly midway into a phrase, leaving the performer to “make some kind of musical and emotional sense of a generally inexplicable, yet gripping, musical moment”. It is a moment, he argues, that embodies the key to understanding the entire cycle. He then proceeds to examine the contrasting ways in which this crucial passage has been interpreted by pianists Richter, Jarrett, and Nikolaeva. Also, by way of developing the topic, he takes a sideways glance at Shostakovich’s various uses of ritenuto in the string quartets and symphonies.

The manner of presentation throughout this engaging study often has a checkerboard quality as we shift from one facet of investigation to the next. However, the narrative is always on course, and almost every page is rewardingly invested with nuggets of insight and information both large and small. While one will not find Roman Numeral analysis anywhere in the book, a meticulously detailed account of the harmonic and motivic movement of each of the 48 entries is generously provided. For these sections it is necessary to have a score at hand, but for those who choose to do so, the analytical paragraphs can easily be skipped over.

The advice Mazullo routinely dispenses to the prospective performer is diligently attentive to detail, as in this typical example from the discussion of Fugue number 10: “Performers should take great care in this passage (measures 102–117) to execute Shostakovich’s dynamic markings with precision. The unexpected drop to pianissimo in measure 112 – which sounds counterintuitive because of the rise of the melodic line – is one of the fugue’s most sublime moments.”

The author is as thorough as he is precise and he even finds discrepancies between different editions of the score. In Fugue number 6 Shostakovich seems to have had second thoughts about the degree to which he sought to ‘enstrange’ a particular static moment toward the end of this fugue. Here, Mazullo makes reference to the autographed score where he singles out a meno mosso marking that was clearly added as an afterthought, as it appears in pencil and not in the original ink used for the rest of the manuscript. It is one of a number of instances in the book where Mazullo identifies markings in the original manuscript that are missing in published editions. Another such instance is spotted in the discussion of the now here, now gone, phrase markings of Prelude number 2, which is accompanied by a reproduction of the autograph page in question. The interpretive implications of these differences are provided in each case.

Mazullo points to commonly recurring contours in the fugues, most prominently, melodic shapes that outline the first, fifth and sixth degrees of the scale. It’s a rather stunning observation, and a pattern that one already encounters in the subject of Fugue number 1 in C Major and then throughout the cycle. He notes, with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm, the evident similarity (mentioned all of nine times during the course of the discussion) between the subject of this first fugue and the opening tune of Shostakovich’s near contemporaneous oratorio, The Song of the Forests – and then follows with an exploration of the personal, political and musical ramifications therein. Mazullo also identifies commonly recurring vertical relationships, for example between tonic and submediant harmonies that appear throughout the set. Rather than viewing these recurring attributes in a negative light, he sees them as contributing to the work’s overall expressive and narrative continuity. He also acknowledges the remarkable variety of thematic material introduced throughout the cycle.

In the grouping entitled ‘Active Surfaces’ (which takes up Preludes and Fugues numbers 3, 5, 7, 11, 17, and 21) Mazullo looks at these pieces that put on display the more extroverted side of Shostakovich’s creativity, where matters of texture, physical sensation, and even thrill, predominate. He regards Prelude and Fugue number 7 the cycle’s sunniest point, a “shimmering oasis”, whose strong modulatory
wanderings are kept in sunny check by frequent references to the tonic. In his discussion of Prelude and Fugue number 11 Mazullo notes Shostakovich’s fondness for using the key of the tritone as a substitute for the dominant, and cites other, powerfully expressive examples of this practice in the opening movements of the Piano Quintet and Second String Quartet. In Fugue number 21 he points to a formal tonal plan unprecedented in the cycle in which subject-answer entrances embrace the “newfound wonder” of major-minor relationships.

What is the nature of the aesthetic marriage between a Shostakovich prelude and fugue? And between adjacent pairs of preludes and fugues? Mazullo deals with this idea, of pairwise connections, in the section entitled ‘Personalities in Pairs’ (featuring pieces numbers 1 & 2, 9 & 10, and 15 & 16). For example, he identifies the technique of inversion, which occurs uniquely in Fugue number 9, as part of that fugue’s “antique dress”, its “baroque-sounding, care-free” character that forms a “necessary counterpart to the brooding, declamatory, and most Russian of preludes.” He finds the “overwhelming sense of duality” that pervades this pair as continuing on many levels in the next pair, Prelude and Fugue number 10. He likewise sees the boldly assertive Prelude and Fugue number 15 as forming a counterpart of similarities and dissimilarities in the expressive ambiguities of Prelude and Fugue number 16.

In the section entitled, ‘Completing the Cycle’, Mazullo consolidates his view of the score’s overall dramatic architecture. He sees in the final six preludes and fugues, numbers 18 to 24, an increasingly enigmatic, darker-hued character, comprising the final chapter of an emotional progression that spans the entire score, from light to darkness, from “nonchalance to fiery resolve”. He discerns a sense of continuity in this final grouping, whose entries sound increasingly orchestral and symphonic in conception, as they lead to the mighty capstone of the set, the final entry in D minor. Never one to miss a detail to buttress his argument, he mentions that Fugue number 23 and Prelude number 24 were composed on one and the same day, one of only two instances of such creative proximity in the entire cycle.

With this book Shostakovich scholarship moves one step further from the politically obsessed views of his music that reached a level of frenzy in the 1990s. In fact in the book Mazullo rejoices over the “thankfully waning tendency” to decode Shostakovich’s purported musical symbols. He addresses the climate of guarded creativity in which the Preludes and Fugues were composed, i.e., in the wake of the notorious Antiformalist campaign of 1948. However, he states that the Preludes and Fugues speak in an accessible and ultimately apolitical voice. Yes, elements of parody and caricature appear in the score, as do the occasional references to Jewish music (a component of Shostakovich’s music to which Mazullo gives a fair amount of attention); but they should not be taken as musical gestures of dissidence.

The third and final part of the book, ‘A Living Work of Art’, is a survey of a somewhat skewed selection of recordings. Mazullo takes an uncompromising look at the composer’s own rather stiff interpretations, as well as at the imperfect ones of Roger Woodward and Ollie Mustonen. He finds Vladimir Ashkenazy’s widely acclaimed account as being “cold, bloodless, and perfunctory”, a casualty of the Soviet emigre pianist’s misguided and rather presumptuous ideological views of both the music and the man. He goes on to sing the praises of Boris Petrushansky’s epic-sounding if admittedly sentimentalised version. But he saves his most enthusiastic remarks for Tatiana Nikolaeva’s first three recordings (evidently at the time of writing, Mazullo was unaware of a fourth and final version that appeared on DVD; or that her 1962 version had indeed been digitally released), urging listeners to “hear past” her notorious technical shortcomings for the “profound timbral imagination” and the “atmosphere of momentous drama” that she brings to the music. Amen. These comments are particularly welcome as one now and again hears disparaging remarks about Nikolaeva’s performances from those who resist looking beyond their sometimes imperfect surfaces. (Readers are directed to DSCH 31 for a review of the DVD and a detailed comparison of all four existing Nikolaeva renditions).

A few minor omissions in this otherwise broadly inclusive book should be mentioned. While the text is generously illustrated with musical examples, it would have been helpful to have included a summary index of the first few bars of each prelude and fugue as a handy reference guide. In the section examining fugues by other Russian composers, Mazullo mentions examples by Glazunov and Taneyev, and in particular, the collection of Six Preludes and Fugues, opus 61, by Dmitri Kabalevsky which, in their blatant imitation of Shostakovich’s examples, provides interesting points of comparison. Yet he completely overlooks the set of 24 Preludes and Fugues by as prominent a composer as Rodion Shchedrin, as well as the set of Alexander Flyarkovsky (born in 1931, a year before Shchedrin, and a fellow student of Yuri Shaporin). Also missing are the contributions of the noted contrapuntalist and student of Taneyev’s, Alexander Goldenweiser – all of which are represented on disc in one form or another. In a related matter, the recordings of the Shostakovich that Mazullo refers to throughout the book again display a somewhat limited exposure to the discography. I wish the author had included or at least given mention to some of the more recent complete recordings of Shostakovich’s cycle, viz. those by Alexander Melnikov (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), Colin Stone (DSCH 33), David Jalbert, Kori Bond (both reviewed in DSCH 30), Jenny Lin and Muza Rubackyte. He might have found in them a broader range of interpretations than in the few he restricts himself to.

These few shortcomings aside, this pioneering study does an outstanding job of situating Shostakovich’s opus 87 in its proper place on the musical map. For those already familiar with the music, it will deepen the way one thinks about it, and for the performer, the way one plays it. The book’s broad compendium of musical discussion and analysis is abetted by beautifully descriptive prose, references to a wide array of scholarship, poignant advice to the prospective interpreter, and the occasional polemic. It will provide a stimulating guide for anyone who wishes to pursue a more intimate acquaintance with one of classical music’s towering masterpieces.

Louis Blois