Jean-S├ębastien Caux

Nikolayeva and Shostakovich

Posted on 2021-02-18   Anecdotes

This cultural pointer concerns what is perhaps my favourite set of 20th-Century piano music. It starts with a nice story (and is followed by a tragicomic personal anecdote).

1950 marked the bicentennial of Bach's death. On this occasion, an international piano competition was organized in Leipzig. As a set piece, all candidates had to play one of the Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (of which there are 48 in total).

Among the competitors was a young Russian pianist whose name was Tatiana Nikolayeva. When she got on stage, she slightly arrogantly asked the jury which of the 48 preludes and fugues the jury would like to hear. Among the jury members was the famous Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I'm not sure precisely what happened next but the apocryphal story told to me was that piqued by the young pianist's arrogance, Shostakovich said "Play them all". And she did.

The historical facts are that she won the competition, and much more importantly, she won Shostakovich's admiration. After the event, he set out to compose a new set of Preludes and Fugues dedicated to her. What came out of this were the 24 Preludes and Fugues Opus 87, which she premiered in 1952.

Now for the tragicomic anecdote... When I was a BSc student in Montreal, I used to work part-time in a classical CD music store (this was meant to cover my finances but ended up being a bit of a disaster: since I could buy CDs at cost price, I spent not only my whole salary but all the money I could somehow borrow in order to beef up my own collection). Anyway...

One day in November 1993 (yes, I'm that old), I was waiting for a friend of mine in a cafe/bookstore. A client of the CD shop was there and recognized me, and we started chatting. He informed me that Tatiana Nikolayeva, who he knew I loved immensely, had just passed away (she was struck by a haemorrhage during a concert playing (you guessed it) the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues).

Just as this client and I were speaking, my friend comes in, finds us and overhears our conversation. He looks at me with a face like he's having a heart attack. I ask him if he's OK.

He pulls out two tickets (one for me as a birthday present) to a concert scheduled for a couple of weeks later, and hands them over to me.

I take a look. The tickets were to go see Tatiana Nikolayeva play the 24 Preludes and Fugues Open 87 of Shostakovich.

That's how closely I missed my chance to see the great lady in person.

Here under two links to videos with her playing these pieces (if you want just the music, the best recording is surely her 1991 Hyperion version). Though I like all of these preludes and fugues, over the years, the prelude to Nr 12 (video part 1, starting around 55:30) has grown to become one of my favourites (I think the bit from 57:30 on might just be the most romantic piano music ever written). Enjoy in a dark room with volume set on max.

Video part 1

Video part 2