Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in A major
This is another entry in the cycle for which we have a video of a performance, by Asya Selyutina.  This is, owing to the key of A major, one of the brightest and most festive of the entries in the cycle. 

Prelude (starts at 0:22)

This is a laconic 3/4 work marked "Andante largo".  While Koshkin is famous among classical guitarists for his macabre Poe-inspired "Usher Waltz" this waltz in A major is about as far away in mood and idiom as Koshkin could while still being Koshkin and still being in 3/4.  A predominantly chorale texture permeates this prelude, though a chorale with many ninth chords and secondary leading tone chords.  I would do a more detailed harmonic analysis if there were a way to do so without actually showing you what's in the score but I'm not in a hurry to get into any infringement activities.  The prelude is dominated by four-measure phrases.  Koshkin plays a lot with secondary leading tone chords and what are known as passing chords.  He opens with a bright A major that shifts by measure 2 in what looks on paper to be a second inversion minor dominant chord but because of the laconic harmonic rhythm what this signals to us (especially if we're listening to this performed) is that this opening A major chord has been swiftly transformed into a secondary dominant, that of the subdominant.  Sure enough we get a subdominant in measure 3, though it's in first inversion and it's a D major seventh chord.  This leads to an F major chord with an added sixth (the D natural hidden in the middle of the texture at the third beat) but this is a passing chord.  It has linear contrapuntal meaning but is not easily defined in terms of functional harmony.  You get used to seeing a lot of this in Russian music in general in my experience; it's one of the things that make Russian music fun.  The D major seventh in first inversion is transformed into B dominant seventh, which, of course, is the secondary dominant to the dominant and the dominant is precisely what we get at measure five, which augurs in the second phrase.

All of this transpires quickly within the first few seconds of the prelude and like any good prelude it telegraphs the harmonic and melodic language we'll be hearing to the end of the prelude.  I mention that and make a point of it because when I was studying Igor Rekhin's cycle of preludes and fugues I found myself liking his subjects and thinking his fugues were okay, and I liked his preludes about half the time but I found myself puzzled by what could be the wild disconnect between his preludes and the subsequent fugues.  For instance, there's an abrupt mood shift between his prelude in B flat major and the fugue in B flat major. 

Again, if you're reading this and don't have a copy of the score at hand there's only so much I can do in a mere blog post, but the modal ambiguity of this prelude has to be seen as well as hear to be fully understood.  Koshkin uses passing chords to shift in and out of the key of A major at will but quickly gets back "on key" throughout.  He may land on a C major seventh chord with a ninth at measure 11 (); or he may build up to a deceptive cadence that leads to a subtonic that simmers in lydian inflections at measures 21 and 22 (starts at 1:16) but there's only so much I can describe here.  This is an A major piece, to be sure, but there's something wistful and detached in this prelude and it has everything to do with subtle and rapid modal mutation on a chord by chord basis as the simple and faintly plaintive melody makes its way from start to finish. 

We do, however, get a very upfront and obvious dominant pedal section at 1:37 and we get a very firm harmonic and melodic resolution at 1:50 that signals the syntactic climax of the prelude has been reached.  From that point Koshkin gently winds down an already gentle prelude and closes with a series of chords to be played using natural harmonics.

Now, about those chords in harmonics--measure 43 is easy. Take your fourth finger and lay it across strings 1 through 5 at the seventh fret exactly as instructed in the score.  With your first finger touch the sixth string at the fourth fret as indicated.  Easy-peasy.  It's that simple.  Koshkin's instructions are aligned with the rising order of the pitches.  Having written a dozen studies in natural harmonics over the years, and having a handful of them up online for consultation, I could improve my right hand technique but I think my left hand technique is basically competent.  So I can walk you through the basics of how to execute the closing chords of this prelude.  If you're an experienced guitarist and saw how Selyutina played the chords already you won't really need to read the rest of this discussion of the prelude.  Now I think the kinds of chords in harmonic Koshkin calls for should be chords any and every guitarist learns how to play.  It's just part of mastering the full range of musical possibilities on the instrument. 

IF there's any tricky part in the chord at measure 43 for those not already used to this kind of playing it's the RIGHT hand, not the left.  The G sharp should be taken by p, which could also take the E natural.  Nevertheless I recommend you play the E with i rather than p because depending on how your nails and attack are you get noises you don't want.  You also won't be able to pull off the chord with the completely unrolled effect that is patently in the score for guitarists who may need to be reminded that you never just roll chords just because that's what you're used to doing if the score doesn't explicitly call for it.  That leaves the F sharp and D respectively to be taken by the a and m.  You'll likely need all four of pima from the right hand to execute the chord all in one go but it's worth it and the left hand part really is as easy as I just described in the preceding paragraph.

Now for that second chord in harmonics at 44.  The principle of execution is similar.  You create a barre with your fourth finger at the twelfth fret and you're good to go for that part.  The tricky part for an inexperienced guitarist is the A and C sharp.  You get the A, as instructed, at the seventh fret of the fourth string. You get the C sharp at the ninth fret of the fifth string.  Play the A with the first finger of the left hand and the C sharp with the second finger, and just see to it the third finger stays out of the way.  That should make the second chord manageable.  It may be difficult at first and you may have to practice the preliminary stretch but the left hand and right hand execution are, in principle, more or less like the previous chord. 

The last "chord" is the C sharp and A dyad that ends the prelude.  This is a charmer and it will be scary for guitarists who up until now have gone their whole playing careers not realizing all the harmonics you can play at the third and fourth frets in addition to the usual suspects.  Sor knew where the third fret harmonics were, and the ones at the sixth fret, too.  In this case all you have to do is place your first finger at the third fret of the fourth string and your second finger at the fourth fret of the fifth string. An important proviso here is that depending on the fingerboard and intonation of your instrument you may want to position the first finger JUST BELOW the third fret rather than on the third fret, which will feel weird at first because it will look like you're cramming two fingers together on adjacent strings within the space of two frets rather than having a fret for each digit.  Don't worry about that.  What you do want to worry about is making sure that high A harmonic sounds properly and experience has taught me over the last twenty years that you put your fingers where the natural harmonics ring out best and if it's not literally, exactly ON the third fret you don't sweat that part. 
Having written a dozen studies in harmonics I'm hugely biased here but I think this resolution to the prelude is gorgeous.  I'd expect nothing less from Koshkin. 

Now for the fugue

Fugue (starts at 2:30)
The fugue opens with an elegant and lengthy subject in 3/4 full of ascending runs.  The first thing that comes to mind is that it's kind of an upside down guitar version of the subject from the final movement of the Hammerklavier which you can hear at 2:53 in this video.

Koshkin's fugue subject rises where Beethoven's falls and it rises up to a peak before steadily descending where Beethoven's subject rises but the overall arc feels similar, which is hardly a bad thing, I happen to like late Beethoven.  This eight measure fugue subject gets an answer at measure 55 (2:39) at the dominant and gets a countersubject before the third and final entry of the subject, in the lowest voice, appears at 2:50.  We get a soprano, alto, tenor/bass series of entries which is nice and dramatic for the guitar in this key. 

Now given such a long subject (eight measures) episodes for a fugue such as this can actually be pretty short because the sheer level of fragmentation you can subject the subject or countersubject to can let you effect a modulation with a few changes without having to let the entire subject run its course.  So the first middle entry shows up bright and early at 3:01 in B minor. The next episode begins at 3:11 and is pretty large, full of sequential runs, bouncing bass lines, and antiphonal back and forth between voices taking up the initial measures of the subject. There is constantly the promise of a middle entry in which the subject will be presented in full but that doesn't arrive until measure 108 at 3:38, when we get a middle entry in F major.

A mere ten seconds later, at measure 117 (3:48), we're in a new middle entry in B flat major. From here we get another extensive episode and I could try to describe it but there's such a thing as recognizing that you can't really explain a fugue that moves this quickly and brightly with mere words to people who don't already have the score.  Koshkin does work toward a dominant pedal tone on the low open E that prepares the way for an A major appearance of the subject which springs up at 4:29. Having played the subject in full in so many middle entries Koshkin doesn't present the entire subject unaltered. Instead he transforms the subject into a tonic and chromatic submediant alternation that signals the climax of the fugue having been reached, we're heading in for the home stretch.

Part of that journey is a brief detour into parallel minor at 4:40 (measure 161). Instead of building up to a giant, bright, explosive resolution Koshkin winds things down to an impudently quiet authentic cadence at 4:57.

This is a charming, fun fugue.  Having sung it's praises I do feel there was a missed opportunity here.  A diatonic inversion of this subject would have made for a fantastic middle entry in an already pretty good fugue. 

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