Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues have become Alexander Melnikov's calling card of late. Written in 1951 for Tatiana Nikolayeva, whose Bach performances Shostakovich hugely admired, they have a reputation for austerity not entirely warranted. Shostakovich wrote 24 in all, of which Melnikov gave us the first 12 as the closing section of his recital. He has brought new audiences to them, and when you hear him play them, you understand why.
Stylistically and temperamentally, they suit him remarkably well. This is music that is strenuous and searching without ever aspiring to flamboyance, and Melnikov is a self-effacing performer. He makes us aware of the music's paradox: that subordination to the rigours of Bach-like form permits great expressive, even political freedom. So we were reminded that the E Minor Prelude and Fugue is one of Shostakovich's big triumph-in-adversity pieces, and that the huge G Sharp Minor coupling into which the first half seemingly collapses is a tragic statement of searing intensity.
All this was utterly mesmerising, and I for one rather wished that Melnikov had programmed the entire sequence, rather than preface half of it with Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Brahms's 7 Fantasies Op 116. This is no reflection on his playing of either. The Schubert was very grand – a bit too much so for my taste, though the Brahms found him, in the third intermezzo above all, brilliantly illuminating another paradox, this time between structural compression and emotional expansiveness. But Melnikov's Shostakovich is very special, and you simply want more of it.