These preludes and fugues are among the masterpieces of the twentieth century. They aren’t better known, I imagine, because many are deeply depressing: they were written at the height of Stalinist repression, and some are intransigently inconsolable and bleak.
Technically, a few of the fugues are extremely difficult, demanding high levels of technique. Shostakovich did this intentionally: according to Mark Mazullo, his earlier works from the 1930s pursue a kind of eccentricity and willful difficulty that were tempered by his experiences in the Stalin era. Here, in the 1950s, he retains some elements of that practice: intentionally almost impossible tempi, like the precipitous 21st prelude, which is over in a moment. (It is far more precipitous than the “Precipitoso” third movement of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata, which Martha Argerich plays as fast as Shostakovich asks this movement be played.)
Luckily many preludes and fugues are intermediate, and a few are easy. Among the saddest: fugue #8, prelude #14, and prelude #19. These are not simply despairing: that implies some rhetorical flourishes denoting unhappiness. They are inconsolable because they are enactments of despair, apparently done without a thought about persuading listeners. Mazullo has written some of his best pages on these pieces, especially the bewildering, painfully long eighth fugue (even listening to it is exhausting: even in its structure it’s exhausted, even before it begins its endless slow marches through the fugue), and the ironic or sarcastic second voice in the 19th prelude. (Is that staccato voice sarcastic, or not?)
There are also rare moments of happiness: fugue #7, for example. But even the final heroic fugue that ends the series builds to a more-or-less conventional climax, and then suddenly screams out a couple of measures and ends, as if it was finally impossible for him to contain himself, and whatever he wanted to write then couldn’t be accommodated in the fugue, or in the series.
Mazullo’s book is really excellent, concise, insightful music criticism on some of the most obdurately, emotionally closed music of the mid-20th century. I have played the Preludes and Fugues since 2011, and I hope to write more on them, and on Mazullo’s book.