Exhilarating approach from a humble pianist

Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
June 16, 2008

Roger Woodward, City Recital Hall, June 13.

Roger Woodward strode onto the stage, acknowledged his audience with a self-deprecating smile and then sat down and entered into another world.

Dmitry Shostakovich's 24 Preludes And Fugues, Op. 87, are not for the faint-hearted. Written in 1951, in the temporary shadow of the Zhdanov Decree of 1948, they are defiantly abstract, cerebral and infused with the spirit of Bach. Woodward's approach mirrored Shostakovich's bold (and potentially foolhardy) stance, a principled asceticism which dodged the temptation to linger over any lyricism. It worked brilliantly.

Far from being cold and imperious, Woodward's humble austerity, combined with a machine-cut accuracy, had the effect of slowly building warmth and intensity, backed by a burning conviction in the right of these notes to just be.

Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, by contrast, began with the sunny C major Prelude, all sweetness and light and drawing a bell-like clarity from the instrument. Woodward's technique remains manifestly flawless: his shoulders barely move, balancing his monk-like shaven head, as if concentrating all energy into the hands.

There is no clue from the body language as to what is going to flow out from these powerful tools; a deep breath, a turn of the page and then exhilarating cascades of a breakneck C sharp major, a determinedly perfect D major and on, up the keyboard, into the time-stopping poise of D sharp minor. There were a few grimaces as a note here and there refused to stay in line, but nothing that could not be forgiven by the time the Tierce de Picardy arrived.

One last thing. Why, for this, the first complete performance of Shostakovich's Preludes And Fugues in Australia, was there no recording, no broadcast? A missed opportunity.