The University of Washington professor bought the score for Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, in 1975, but let it lie for nearly 30 years. Now he’s sharing his passion for the work with audiences across the country, and beyond.
When pianist Craig Sheppard bought his first score for Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, in London in 1975, he didn’t quite know what he had in his hands.
“It was sitting around, barely even opened,” he said in a recent interview at his home in North Seattle, “until just last year.”
Even after Richard Karpen, head of the University of Washington’s School of Music, suggested Sheppard follow his wonderful Beethoven and Bach cycles with the Shostakovich, the pianist had doubts.
More classical concerts
Music lovers have plenty to choose from in the coming days:
Byron Schenkman & Friends ‘Handel & Telemann, Musical Friends’: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 19, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall; byronschenkman.com
Emerson String Quartet: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, Meany Hall, UW; uwworldseries.org
Joshua Roman — A Community-Curated Concert of Cello Suites: 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 22, Town Hall Seattle; townhallseattle.org
Seattle Symphony with Marc-Andre Hamelin: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23, and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25, Benaroya Hall; seattlesymphony.org
Simone Dinnerstein plays Poulenc, Debussy and Schubert: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23, Meany Hall, UW; uwworldseries.org
Chanticleer ‘Mystery’: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25, Town Hall Seattle, earlymusicguild.org
Auburn Symphony ‘Grand Tour’: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, and 2 p.m. Sunday April 26, lecture starts 45 minutes before each concert, Theatre at Auburn Mountainview, auburnsymphony.org
The pieces, he told Karpen, are “so damned difficult — and you know, they’re a little uneven.”
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Karpen’s response: “Yes, I think you’re right about that.”
It was an exchange they both later regretted.
“When I pulled them off the shelf and started working on them,” Sheppard says ruefully, “I realized that I was the one who was ‘uneven’ … What kills me — although I guess it’s better late than never — is the fact that here I had this treasure trove sitting there in this old volume….”
He shakes his head in disbelief at the way he neglected it — but he’s making up for that now. In the last few months, he has played the Russian composer’s epic keyboard work at campuses around the country and, just recently, at several venues in China.
He’ll continue “proselytizing” for it when he plays it again Saturday, April 25, at Meany Hall.
“I think these are the greatest solo piano pieces of the first half of the 20th century — bar none,” he declares. That, he emphasizes, is taking works by Prokofiev, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Debussy into account — which are, he notes wryly, “pretty good.”
Shostakovich wrote 24 Preludes and Fugues in the winter of 1950-1951 after hearing Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva play excerpts from the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” at a Bach festival in Leipzig in July 1950.
When Shostakovich presented his Bach-inspired piece to the USSR Union of Composers to get permission to have it published and performed, he explained modestly: “As I started composing this work, I found that it was transcending the limits of a purely technical exercise.”
Give the man a prize for understatement.
The 24 Preludes and Fugues — which Nikolayeva championed throughout her career — comprise a vast, rich, endlessly varied work that includes moments of mystery, agitation, antic humor and spritely grace. Shostakovich was repeatedly accused by Soviet critics of indulging in “formalism.” (One pleading curmudgeon wished he wouldn’t waste himself on “compositions with so little ideological significance.”)
But listen to the 24 Preludes and Fugues, and you’ll hear a restless, mercurial mind in constant shape-shifting motion. The cycle is alternately meditative and playful, tart and serene, ominous and joyful. With each repeated listen, it seems to delve deeper into the realm of the human soul.
Although the music continually takes unexpected turns, it remains lucid throughout. It is, as Sheppard says, both “approachable” and “profoundly lyrical.”
That makes it something of a mystery why, compared with Shostakovich’s string quartets and symphonies, the 24 Preludes and Fugues are so unfamiliar to audiences.
“Every place I go,” Sheppard remarks, “people say, ‘I had no idea.’ The irony was that I don’t think that I did either.”
Though Sheppard’s own discovery of this masterpiece came through study of the score rather than hearing a recording or live performance, he’ll be making his own recording of it and is passionate about taking audiences through the whole two-hour cycle in the concert hall.
“This stuff just speaks to me,” he says. “I hope you’ll hear that.”