Winner of the 2014 Gina Bachauer and 2016 Sydney International Piano Competitions, Andrey Gugnin is a Moscow/Como-trained pianist of platinum technique with a wealth of imagination and fantasy. Aspects of this Shostakovich album remind me of the young Demidenko in his glory years – a Hyperion signing from earlier days. There's the same sense of urgent rhythmic spring, the ability to pulverise and poeticise, the icy attention to textural clarity and chordal voicing, the foundational weight of bass registering, the wideness of dynamic range. It's a galvanising chemistry.
Following Chopin's sequence of majors and relative minors ascending by fifths, the Opus 34 Preludes (1932-33) spotlight all his strengths and no weaknesses. Here is a strong dramatist at work, able to infuse aphoristic statements with innumerable layers of attack and sentiment. All manner of characters pass by – dreamers, strutters, satirists, thinkers, dancers, old men, children. Making a good sound is a first priority for Gugnin. That, and the most exacting of articulations. Notes ripple, sing, agitate. He can fashion a vocal legato, a biting staccato. His climaxes orate. I remember learning these pieces in the 1960s. They left a curiously indifferent impression. What recordings emerged did little to change my mind. A few I liked, the rest I thought dispensable. My loss. Gugnin’s account is a revelation of magnum order, a whirlwind of cleansing air.
The two Piano Sonatas spotlight the artist as large-scale structuralist. More particularly the Second, premiered by the composer in 1943, shortly before starting the Eighth Symphony. Here is a reading of extreme precision and digital attack, the Finale ranging from curling cantabile phrasing through heated argument and apotheosis to black finish, heavenly vision to acid rain, Beethoven and Prokofiev standing by in the wings. With such tensioned, harmonically orbitted playing what, one ponders, might Gugnin do with the Sonata repertory generally? The sustained loneliness of the elegiac central movement needs to be experienced, upfront from deep within. Slower overall than either Yudina or Gilels (who plumbed other gravities) but arresting listening.
Written in 1926, the sub-divided single-movement 'October' First Sonata is a raging force of nature. In his booklet note Robert Matthew-Walker – a man who can teach the younger generation a thing or two about the workings of the compositional mind, admirably unafraid to tread technical waters – unreservedly calls it “teeming, iconoclastic, uncompromising – youthful genius at full flood, capable of staggering listeners a century after it was written.” The aggression, the oppositions, the sudden pools of calm, the jagged expression and harmonic clustering, the swathes of apocalyptic writing (Shostakovich entered the first Chopin Competition in Warsaw the following year, in a Soviet field including Oborin and Ginzburg) leave one alternately awed and affronted, adjectivally impotent. In an iron-locked, adrenalin-charged recital way back Lilya Zilberstein (who recorded the work for DG in the late-eighties) exposed us to the explosive ferocity of this music. Gugnin is wirier, unleashing its wildness with leonine stealth and jawed pounce. Commentators who seek or confine themselves to Prokofiev, Mosolov or Roslavets in these pages somewhat simplify if not misplace the reality.
Closing the album, the ‘Nocturne’ from Act Two of The Limpid Stream, Shostakovich's third ballet (1935), offers tender solace – Gugnin gauging an affectingly simple performance saying what he has to in less than 125 seconds of unruffled diatonic whiteness.