By Peter Margasak
In 2016 the prolific Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov made his overdue Chicago debut with his frequent collaborator, the great German violinist Isabelle Faust. Now he’s back for a solo performance of one of the most remarkable works of the 20th century for his instrument: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. In 1950 Shostakovich attended a performance by fellow Russian Tatiana Nikolayeva of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier—two sets of preludes and fugues in all 24 minor and major keys—and was so moved by the experience he set about writing a response to the work. He feverishly churned out his two-and-a-half-hour opus in just over three months. It was premiered by Nikolayeva in 1952, and she continued to perform it from memory until her death in 1993. Melnikov recorded his own staggering interpretation of the Preludes and Fugues for a dazzling 2010 release on Harmonia Mundi. In his liner-note commentary he dismisses the criticism that the music is too academic and formal, and his performance further dispatches that notion. The electrifying polyphony of the writing demands much of the performer. But Melnikov deftly achieves a masterful blend of dancing, bright-toned melodies, somber harmonies, and breathless rhythms on the up-tempo passages, as well as the heightened sensitivity and feel for jagged lines suffused in darkness necessary for the subdued sections. The pianist will perform the entire work, with two intermissions to break things up.