In 1992, Tatiana Nikolayeva played a concert at the Harrogate International Festival, during which she played several pieces from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes & Fugues, Opus 87. A stout lady in her sixties, she played with surprising verve, and considerable intensity. She knew the work well. In 1950 she met the composer at the Bach Leipzig Piano Competition (marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death), where Shostakovich was a judge.  The young Russian pianist’s interpretations of The Well-Tempered Clavier inspired Shostakovich to begin composing the Preludes and Fugues, which Nikolayeva first performed, and then made famous through her three recordings and numerous recitals.

Tatiana Nikolayeva

I had bought her acclaimed 1991 recording of Opus 87 earlier that year, and now sat in Harrogate’s genteel Royal Hall on a hot evening. She played some Bach, with great expressiveness if occasional clumsiness, but a selection of Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues formed the emotional heart of the recital. She even added a couple more as an encore. In November of the following year, Nikolayeva collapsed while playing Opus 87 in San Francisco, dying some days later.

As I write, Nikolayeva plays from her 1987 recording, which I now find softer and subtler, with a cleaner, more austere sound than the somewhat echoing and over-accentuated 1991 version. Number 5 in D major is playing. The prelude, light as hope, shimmers brightly as it spins upwards, then gently returns to earth, before the fugue dashes off, excited and breathless. Because I know it so well, I am eager for the sprint to climax in its simple, pure three-note summation of joy, which demands of me a foolish hum of collaboration. Equally, I know what follows: the great B minor chords of number 6’s prelude, grand and martial, the anger subsiding as the fugue’s motif begins to weave its repetitions. Is this light or dark? It seems to oscillate between the two, like a man having an argument with himself. For years, I have understood this fugue in only one way – this is thought itself, this is what thinking sounds like, that wordless, soundless dialogue with the self now audible in notes and chords. And, of course, that thinking is not cool detachment, not icy intellect, but, like real thinking, expressed in flowing emotions that end, as all thinking has to, in resolute uncertainty. The fugue form suits this perfectly, of course, with its endless returns upon the self, the steady accumulation of rhythms, the frail architecture of argument, with anarchy and incoherence always a single note away.

The fugue of the Eighth now plays. The sleeve notes of my Regis CD describe it thus: “The subject of the lengthy Fugue is a horn-like figure, the prevailing mood is desolate but not totally without feeling (sic).” The four notes of the ‘horn-like figure’ chime like some dreadful funeral bell. The sparse sound evokes a sense of empty space, with silence lurking just beyond the gloom. Desolate, with much feeling.

The 16th, in Bb minor, opens with a romantic, sweet prelude of great grace and lightness, which subsides into the fragility of the fugue. Here, the discourse develops in a flux of thought that moves on, then returns to its starting point, again and again, like a cherished memory (for even in the minor key this sounds if not joyful then at least stained by happiness). At its climax, Opus 87 becomes darker, with anxiety and melancholy the prevailing moods, from the steady ache of regret in the C minor fugue to the great symphonic darkness of the final fugue in D minor.

For nearly twenty years I have listened to this music, enthralled. From these sounds, I have explored further into the classical music repertoire, as if following links on a web search page: to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, thence to the English Suites played by the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt; through her recitals and recordings, to Ravel’s piano music. And so on.

I even wrote a sequence of poems directly inspired by this unique collaboration of Bach, Shostakovich and Nikolayeva. Here are some lines:

roll the thought

a wet pearl in fine sand,

now gently across your cheek,