Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in B major

In the home stretch for the first half of Nikita Koshkin's preludes and fugues as recorded by Asya Selyutina on Naxos.   More discussion of this prelude and fugue after the break.

Prelude

This is one of the briefest of the preludes, scarcely more than a minute.  It’s an effervescent perpetual motion piece in strophic form with varying phrases, each of which has primary and continuation phrases.  Throughout this little prelude Koshkin rapidly shifts back and form between B major and B minor in the primary phrases before going into more remote keys and minor key passages in the continuation phrases. 

Phrase A1 spans the first 14 seconds of the work, up through measure 14. There’s a rising scale melody that emerges from the perpetual motion figuration that climbs up through B major by passing through a D natural in the first six measures, the primary phrase of A1. At measure 7 (0:06) the A1 continuation phrase begins, in B major but rises to a peak in B minor before the melody falls through B minor to a Neapolitan plagal phrase that ends A1 at 0:14.

Phrase A2 begins at 0:15 with measure 15. Here the primary phrase moves from major to minor quickly and rises to an E minor sonority at measure 23 (0:23) before it descent through measures 23-28. The continuation phrase here is an extended half cadence starting at measure 29 (0:30) and runs in another two phrase run through measure 36. The half cadence drives along to Phrase A3.

Phrase A3, at 0:38, is the dramatic climax of the strophic pattern.  Starting in B major the melody rises to D natural as earlier phrases have but this time the D natural sets up a D minor episode (0:42) at measure 41. This leads to a continuation phrase in B minor with an Andalusian cadence pattern at measures 45-48 (0:47 to 0:49). At measure 49 (0:50) there’s a scale run flourish on the minor subdominant that sets up a half cadence at measure 51 that leads to the concluding phrase of the prelude.

Phrase A4 (measure 53, 0:56) returns to the sunny B major sonorities that opened up this little prelude. We get a short alternation between B and G major, a fairly standard I and flat VII pattern that nicely stabilizes the key after the preceding phrases. This is a set up for the final harmonic rug-pull. At measure 57 (1:01) a B natural tonic pedal on the open second string pulses along while Koshkin runs through arpeggios of F# minor 7, G7, G# minor 7, A7, and A#7 before introducing a descending major/mind scale run in B major that leads to an abrupt  Neapolitan chord and the closing B major tonic at 1:06).



Fugue

Nearing as we are the mid-point of this cycle of preludes and fugues it seems important to highlight something I like about the preludes in Koshkin’s cycle.  In 20th century cycles of preludes and fugues there was the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco cycle for guitar duet, written for the Presti/Lagoya duo, and there was Igor Rekhin’s cycle for solo guitar.  Much as I like the Castelnuovo-Tedesco cycle he would sometimes write a prelude and a fugue from the same core material. Rekhin’s cycle was permeated with gestures across the entire cycle that gave it cohesion but at the same time, the style of his Prelude in B flat major could be all jazzy while his B flat major fugue was neo-Handelian flourish. 

In other words, the former composer was brilliant at establishing continuity between prelude and fugue almost to a fault while the latter composer sacrificed the cohesion of prelude and fugue in any given pairing while providing a cycle-long set of unifying gestures.  Because no one has recorded the complete Rekhin cycle we’re not in the best position to assess from just the scores alone whether his approach paid off.  Koshkin’s approach to preludes and fugues is what I regard as the golden mean, his preludes establish the style of what will be coming in the fugue and the fugue introduces new melodic ideas that are given, well, suitable preludes.

I mention all that because the harmonic ambiguities realized in the melodic writing in the Prelude in B major set us up for the subject to Koshkin’s Fugue in B major.  A very simple rising triad lays out a staccato marching pattern. The tonic triad gets an augmented fifth when it appears again and then becomes a first inversion median chord gesture where G sharp falls through G natural to F#.  All this comes across in the first ten seconds as Koshkin introduces his subject (measures 63-70).

The subject is given a real answer at measure 71 (0:11) and the answer creates a playful back and forth. That playful back and forth has to have some explanation because Koshkin does a great job here in a typically difficult key for the guitar. B major is virtually no one’s idea of a good time key among guitarists (although I love all the keys, personally).  I’m going to go back to an old book for a moment.

In his magisterial 1948 book The Technique and Spirit of Fugue, George Oldroyd made an observation about subjects and countersubjects. Summarizing pages 38 to 49, Oldroyd wrote that it’s crucial for a countersubject to have its own identifiable melodic character and an identifiable rhythmic profile.  My sense of the relatively small field of polyphonic music for solo guitar has impressed upon me that we guitarists need to heed the reality that whatever shows up in the material that answers the subject, whether a countersubject or free material, it’s more important to have an identifiably complementary rhythmic profile than a melodic line “if” we have to choose. 

Ideally we want to follow Oldroyd’s advice that where the subject is in long sustaining or spaced-out tones the countersubject can be full of activity and that a mere commotion should be avoided.  Koshkin’s B major fugue, by the way, is all spritely rhythms. But key to any of this fugue-writing for solo guitar in a key like B major is the fact that whatever the rhythms of the subject and countersubject and possible second countersubject is you will be playing all of this with one hand!

You could take a subject and two countersubjects on a treble clef that look great on paper but if you can’t physically execute them with just your left hand on the fingerboard and just your right hand plucking the strings then you’ve made music that only exists on the page where the guitar is concerned. Conversely, parallelisms of the sort that make for historically bad counterpoint are easily done on the guitar. Writing compelling counterpoint informed by traditional voice-leading concerns that is still idiomatic to the guitar is something that has only started happening with any consistency in the twenty-first century.

I mention all that because even as forbidding a key as B major Koshkin gets his three-voiced fugue exposition to have clearly delineated melodic lines with identifiable rhythmic profiles.  This particular fugue might be likened to a game of table tennis, maybe.  The subject comes in and gets an answer at 0:11 and there’s a bridge section at 0:17 before the third and final entry of the subject occurs at 0:32.

The development of the fugue, with its episodes and middle entries, is kicked off at 0:40 with a Neapolitan chord at measure 98. The Neapolitan to tonic resolution of the prelude has set us up to anticipate the tonic to Neapolitan in the fugue, which is a masterful use of harmonic and melodic writing across the prelude and fugue.

The first episode marches along and seems as though it is heading toward a half-cadence that is going to land us squarely in B major but, of course, this being a fugue, the first episode has the goal of getting out of the tonic key. So at measure 110 (0:54) Koshkin introduces a beautiful stretto episode using the first half of his subject.

In fact it’s worth pointing out that this fugue has few full middle entries in which the eight-measure subject is completed.  More frequently we find episodes that mimic middle entries or form incomplete middle entries using just the first four measures of the subject. For instance, there’s an E minor episode at measure 126 (01:12) that uses the first half of the subject and moves along to another episode with a truncated subject in A major at measure 131 (1:22).

Alternatively, we could decide that the subject is just the first four measures of the fugue and that material from measures 5-8 has been just bridge material, in which case we’ve had middle entries in G sharp minor, B major, E minor, A major and G minor before reaching a climactic passage at 1:45 in measure 153—a block chord chorale passage that leads to a dominant pedal passage that drives along through a coda that wraps up this short 2:09 fugue. The close of the fugue is an echo of the close of the prelude, with an incomplete Neapolitan sonority (C and E in the middle of two outer B naturals) resolving downward to B major.

Seeing as I’ve written about 1,500 words on just barely more than three minutes of music this is a useful reminder that what we can write about music doesn’t correspond to the length of the music itself.  There can be a great deal we can discover and discuss in even fairly short pieces of music.  No piece of music is “too big” but, just as crucially, no piece of music has to be “too small”.  I think it was Charles Rosen who pointed out that many of the masterpieces of seventeenth and eighteenth century keyboard music were explicitly didactic works, whereas

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