On DSCH: Shostakovich and Stevenson/Igor Levit | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Igor Levit
(Sony Classical, three CDs)
Pairing Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH with Shostakovich’s equally epic 24 Preludes is a unique combination of rarity and virtuosity

Two years ago, Igor Levit devoted a recital at the Wigmore Hall to Ronald Stevenson’s massive Passacaglia on DSCH. It was an extraordinary, unforgettable performance of one of the most singular works in the 20th-century piano repertoire, an 80-minute span of music, composed between 1960 and 1963, which contains a whole range of smaller forms within it, using the DSCH motto, a musical “spelling” ( D, E flat, C, B natural) of Dmitri Shostakovich’s initials, as the basis of the 13-note theme over which it seamlessly unfolds.

Levit’s recording of the Passacaglia, just as magnificent as it was live, is paired with Shostakovich’s equally epic set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87. That isn’t exactly an everyday work, especially in a complete performance, but Stevenson’s quirky masterpiece is the real rarity here. It’s conceived in the grand virtuoso tradition of Liszt, Alkan and Busoni, rarely heard in concert and recorded just five times previously, including one by the composer himself and another from the 1960s by John Ogdon that never seems to have been transferred to CD. As Levit shows so spectacularly, it takes a wild ride through a cornucopia of musical forms, quotations and allusions, with references ranging from Bach to 20th-century revolutionary songs – one passage is marked to be played “with an almost Gagarinesque sense of space”, a reference to the Soviet cosmonaut – and of course to Shostakovich, to whom Stevenson dedicated the work.

Alongside the public bravura of the Passacaglia, Shostakovich’s set, composed across just five months in 1950 and 1951, often seems like a quiet, intimate diary. They follow the scheme of The Well-Tempered Clavier in working through all the major and minor keys, though rather than Bach’s chromatic ordering, Shostakovich organises his cycle around the circle of fifths, with each major-key prelude and fugue paired with its relative minor, so that the C major and A minor pieces are followed by the G major and E minor, and so on. Debts to Bach abound, starting at the very beginning with the “white-note” C major Prelude, alongside both oblique and explicit references to Shostakovich’s own works, including the 10th Symphony, which he was working on at the same time.

Most of all, though, Levit’s performance reveals what wonderfully pianistic pieces they are, whether considered individually or as a magnificently arcing sequence. While the recordings by Tatyana Nikolyeva, to whom Shostakovich dedicated the work and who gave its first performance, have a special authenticity, Levit’s comes very close to their quiet mastery, while his performance of the Stevenson has never been equalled.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Igor Levit/Markus Becker review – technically faultless but strangely lacking impact
Works for four hands by Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók were the focus of the third concert in Levit’s Barbican residency

Andrew Clements

20, Feb, 2020 @3:26 PM

Article image
Shostakovich/Gubaidulina: Violin Concertos CD review – dark works played with polished defiance

Kate Molleson

11, May, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
Belcea Quartet review – fierce and fearsome Shostakovich
Piotr Anderszewski joined the quartet for a night of chamber music delivered with an almost superreal level of definition

Andrew Clements

01, May, 2019 @10:49 AM

Article image
Les Dissonances: Shostakovich CD review – momentum and drama

Erica Jeal

10, Nov, 2016 @5:15 PM

Article image
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos 4 and 11 review – brittleness and brilliance
The Boston SO under Andris Nelsons don’t quite bring out the character of these symphonies, but the playing is sometimes stellar

Andrew Clements

02, Aug, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues CD review – Donohoe's directness brings dignity and power

Kate Molleson

30, Mar, 2017 @2:45 PM

Shostakovich: Symphony No 4 – review

The Fourth can be a shattering work, but this performance – though very fine – doesn't quite get there, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

03, Oct, 2013 @9:35 PM

Shostakovich: Piano Concertos; Violin Sonata – review
Alexander Melnikov has become the interpreter of choice for Shostakovich's piano works and this disc does not disappoint, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

09, Feb, 2012 @10:09 PM

Article image
Stevenson: Passacaglia on DSCH, etc – review
The magnificently quirky ambition and scale of this remarkable 85-minute piano work are vividly conveyed, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

14, Nov, 2013 @3:30 PM

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos 1, 2 and 3 – review
Mark Wigglesworth's take on Shostakovich's early symphonies gives a fascinating insight into the composer's development. It's modernism without the dogmatism, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

21, Jun, 2012 @5:08 PM