Originally published on March 31, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
Having entertained the hypothesis last week that the second volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier could “be heard as the only autobiographical account Bach would be capable of telling,” it is, at the very least, tempting to pose the same hypothesis to the collection of 24 preludes and fugues that Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the years 1950 and 1951. Given how little autobiographical data we have about Shostakovich (with good reason), it is an intriguing proposition to explore. Needless to say, in the political context in which Shostakovich was embedded, such a document would have to be highly encrypted; and, while Bach’s account would have served more as resume than autobiography (being in an and-then-I-wrote style), were Shostakovich to go to all of the trouble of encoding his story, the decoding would probably reveal a series of “… and then Stalin did …” episodes.
Whether or not it occurred to Jannie Lo that her performance of the last of these couplings of prelude and fugue at the conclusion of today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco would be interpreted as “dark autobiography” is academic. She may have felt that this was the best way to complete a program that began with Bach’s BWV 904 A minor fantasy and fugue; and this was certainly an excellent choice, since both of the fugues are double fugues, even if each approaches the idea of a double fugue in its own characteristic way. Furthermore, after having found myself having difficulty with the clarity of discourse, so to speak, in András Schiff’s recent performance of fugues by both Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, I am happy to report that Lo’s “sense of fugue” was right on target where both Bach and Shostakovich were concerned. For my own investment of time, this was far more important than whether or not Shostakovich’s prelude and fugue were carrying a scrupulously encoded message about Stalinist oppression!
Placing the eight Klavierstücke (Opus 76, a collection of four capriccios and four intermezzi) of Johannes Brahms between Bach and Shostakovich was also an inspired choice. Brahms was an enthusiastic subscriber to the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition of Bach’s complete works, a 46-volume project whose first volume was published in 1851 and continued until the final volume was published in 1899. Brahms’ Opus 76 was published in 1879, by which time he would have seen (and probably absorbed) the three Clavierwerke volumes that had been released. These include the Fünfzehn Inventionen und fünfzehn Symphonien, the English and French suites, and (you guessed it) the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier. This is not to suggest that any of these works served as models for the eight Opus 76 compositions; but his key choices (F sharp minor, B minor, A flat major, B flat major, C sharp minor, A major, A minor, C major) may have involved his following Bach into the regions of less-used keys (if not a statement of his favorite keys from The Well-Tempered Clavier).
Lo is a native San Franciscan, currently working towards a Master of Performance at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg (Germany). She received a monetary stipend for the study of new music during the current academic year. Given the clarity with which she can present her understanding of Bach, Brahms, and Shostakovich in a single program, I would anticipate that she would bring the same clarity to any “new voice” she chooses to perform in concert. It will be a great benefit to San Francisco should she decide to return and make this her home base after receiving her Master’s degree.