It must have been early 2000. Whether it was February or March, pianist Hannes Minnaar does not remember, but he does know that he was just 15 when he watched an episode of the documentary series on television. Of the beauty and the comfort saw. Wim Kayzer asked 26 artists, scientists and philosophers what makes life worth living. Minnaar saw the episode with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. At the very end of the episode, Ashkenazy plays a piece of music: the ‘fugue in C minor’, from the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich. Lover was totally upside down.
At home in Nederhorst den Berg, in his study with two grand pianos, he walks to the cupboard with sheet music and takes out a tattered bundle. Minnaar: “I walked into the sheet music store Broekmans & Van Poppel in Amsterdam and bought Book 2 with all my birthday money, which contains that fugue.” He looks for the sticker. “Oh, here: 58.80 guilders.” Minnaar was still too inexperienced to play everything. To still hear what it sounded like, he entered some pieces note by note into a computer program, which then played them to him in computer sound. Now, 22 years later, he can. The proof is on a recently released CD, and can be heard live on Tuesday at the Chamber Music Festival Schiermonnikoog.
two and a half hours
He puts the bundle on the lectern and plays some parts, looking for all the corners that Shostakovich put in it. The sunny A major fugue: „Tiedeliedelie, look, he is experimenting with a melody with only the notes from the A chord.” D-major: “Very magical.” All the more, that the computer used to play for him: “Seems just as happy, but it’s much more forced, much more cynical.” The E-flat major fugue: „Which I couldn’t understand. What does he want with such a theme? Until I heard it’s gruff and gruff, evil.” And the ‘tragic prelude in G-sharp minor, because towards the end a hopeful note escapes for a moment, which seems to dissolve everything, but which then falls down anyway. So hopeless.”
All 24 preludes and fugues, that’s about two and a half hours of music. He recorded the CD in two times three recording days with about six months in between. He has never performed the work in front of an audience in one evening. Fortunately, Minnaar has toured with Bach’s Goldberg Variations (for that CD he won his second Edison two weeks ago), together 80 minutes. In retrospect, Minnaar calls that a good training. Spiritually, that is. “It’s no problem for the fingers, play for two and a half hours. No, it’s hard on the concentration.” Isn’t he worried about that jump from 80 minutes to 150? “Not really. It’s on a break!”
Nor is it easy for the public, Minnaar admits. Although that is not so much because of the length, but because of the character of the music: sad, lonely, isolated. It was not for nothing that Minnaar’s idea came to throw himself at Shostakovich in a coronalockdown. Yes, there are those sunny parts; cheerful, exuberant, even comforting. But they are becoming more and more frugal. “Bach, however profound, is full of hope. Even where he is deeply lamenting, it is never hopeless. Shostakovich is hopeless. His minor fugues are the longest. Slowly the heavy stamp begins to gain the upper hand. If you listen to this, you will be defeated.” Why does he want to do that to his audience? “Because you can really disappear into it. It’s great, it’s imposing, impressive, deeply human. The world is miserable. Sometimes you can say that in the concert hall too.”
Minnaar starts talking about it himself, suddenly pained: „I have scratched my head. A year ago I was just studying an amazing masterpiece. But now… What kind of statement are you making playing Russian music? Do people actually want to hear that? You can come up with all sorts of ways out: that Shostakovich himself suffered under the Soviet regime is very true. But on the other hand: he has bowed, he has made knee drops. His music is always in relation to political rulers, much more than the music of other composers. What that means is a matter of interpretation. Sure, the triumph over the regime in his music is full of irony. He does not support the regime. But it is going too far for me to say that Shostakovich made a caricature of the Soviet Union.”
Lover seems to really care. “However you look at it, it suddenly makes this music hyper-actual.” He plays the prelude in G major. “Listen: this is muscle language. This is where I now hear Putin’s Russia in.” For Minnaar personally, however, the story behind the music matters less. “I always look for the feeling of that 15-year-old me who heard the music on TV and bought the sheet music to study it. I was also completely captivated, not knowing anything about Shostakovich. Sometimes music just has to be music.”
Also read: ‘Can neoclassical music be a gateway to more complex classical music? At Piano Nights it is very similar.‘
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 3, 2022