Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor

Here, at last, we're on the Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor.  This is a work where Koshkin's wearing the influence of Shostakovich on his sleeve, and since I'm a Shostakovich fan I'm fond of this one!   I'll describe which Shostakovich (and Mahler) works I think can be helpful to understanding what Koshkin does in this prelude and fugue after the break.


This prelude opens with a Shostakovich does Mahler style funeral march that can be described as a three-minute melancholy five-part rondo. The comparison is inexact, to be sure, but Koshkin’s G sharp minor A material lands somewhere between Beethoven’s funeral march from the Eroica Symphony and the opening funeral march from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony … but with a kind of Shostakovich style remove in which the A refrain is interrupted by interrupting B materials that veer off into remote keys.  I know that in the album liner notes Graham Wade describes this prelude as revealing a French influence and I don’t exactly contest the French overture rhythms, but I hear the influence of Mahler and Shostakovich and a bit of Beethoven more prominently in the violence of the harmonic language and the strangely detached funeral march than the French overture rhythms themselves.

The A material is presented up through 0:23. The B material appears at measure 7 (0:24) as a continuation phrase of the A material. Yet the new theme has veered abruptly into E minor rather than G sharp minor and introduces a new, even more funereal character to the work. This material wanders toward a half-cadence in G sharp minor by measure 10 (0:43) and prepares the return to G sharp minor with the B material spinning out into new directions. The melody marches along but the harmony becomes more unstable until finally about 1:37 there’s a forte six-note chord, every open string, and an angular short phrase that descends so that at measure 23 the A material has returned (1:39).

By the time the A material reaches a cadence on B major, the B material is ready to return at measure 29 (2:11).  This time however, the music veers into G minor and then into D minor, as far removed from G sharp minor as we can get in terms of root positions and core tonalities.  Koshkin moves steadily and gently, despite the violent modulation, back to G sharp minor by 2:30 at measure 34.


The reason I mentioned Shostakovich in discussing the prelude has everything to do with the fugue.  Koshkin’s G sharp minor fugue is dark and relentless. If I were to look to a precedent outside the guitar literature for what this fugue is like I instantly think of the third movement from Shostakovich String Quartet No. 7 (which you can hear and read about 7:10 here). Koshkin’s G sharp minor fugue shares a great deal of the relentless motoric drive and dark tonality of the Shostakovich fugal finale of the Seventh Quartet.
The chromatically inflected, agitated subject of the fugue is four measures long and takes up the first 8 seconds of the work.  The second voice enters at measure 5 (0:07). The third voice enters at measure 50 (0:15).  It’s interesting to note now that we’re halfway through Koshkin’s cycle that he rarely uses countersubjects and leans more toward free rather than strict counterpoint. I personally find stricter counterpoint that uses double and triple counterpoint to be more fun to compose, personally, and I’ve also found that if you can navigate the demands of triple counterpoint that makes middle entries and episodes vastly easier to write but that’s me making a brief aside.  I can also understand how and why guitarists who don’t also have a background in choral singing would find it preferable to forego countersubjects.

This is a fugue which, unsurprisingly, has no complete middle entries. There are, however, a lot of truncated middle entries that use the most prominent gestures from the subject to span keys ranging from B minor (measure 55 at 0:25); F sharp minor (measure 59 at 0:32); D sharp minor; G sharp minor (measure 63 at 0:40); and E minor at measure 66 (1:46).

This fugue is two minutes long and is necessarily explosive and brief.  It’s nonetheless full of intricate call and response passages that are virtuosic in their demands. Everything builds to a climax in measure 76 (1:02) when the subject is presented in big, loud block chords that leave room for the intricate chromatic runs that have been permeating this fugue (a nod back to Oldroyd and his advice about carefully composing subject and countersubject to leave room for this kind of work seems apt, having mentioned him in discussing the prelude).

The coda, from 1:23 to the end which starts in the middle of measure 82 is classic Koshkin, echoing his moods of desolate macabre humor in “Usher Waltz” and parts of The Prince’s Toys. At measure 96 (1:47) Koshkin lands on a second inversion C major triad and stays there via fermata before ending with a high descending chromatic line that leads to a reprise of the Prelude’s funeral march as the closing phrase to the fugue.  Koshkin has shown a preference for cadences based not on circle progressions but on chords with roots thirds and seconds, even tritons apart (go back to the end of the E major fugue, for instance). Anton Reicha blew the doors off of certain constraints to fugal writing centuries ago, to the point that Beethoven famously declared of them the fugue was no longer a fugue, but centuries later the kind of fugal writing Koshkin has been doing vindicates Reicha’s more flexible and iconoclastic approach to fugal writing.  I admit I’m biased, I enjoy quite a bit of Reicha’s work, which is why I’m mentioning him.  We’ll find that Koshkin takes a cue from Reicha’s willingness to answer a subject at the tritone when we get to Koshkin’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor but for now we’ve reached the end of the first half of Nikita Koshkin’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for Solo Guitar. 

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