PROKOFIEV, Sergei Sergeyevich works for piano 1908-1938

PROKOFIEV, Sergei Sergeyevich
works for piano 1908-1938
Celestial Harmonies 13292-2, Recorded 1991 ABC Australia
Dominy Clements :  Roger Woodward’s recordings have consistently delivered stunning repertoire at the highest level, and his Bach, Chopin and Debussy CDs are all highly desirable. His experiences in Russia resulted in landmark recordings of Shostakovich, and his exploration of less well-known composers is essential listening for anyone seeking to educate themselves beyond what has become the mainstream.

This particular recording was made in 1991 and marked Prokofiev’s centenary. Roger Woodward’s extensive booklet notes are drawn from his 2013 book Beyond Black and White from ABC Books of Sydney, and they reveal much about what makes this recording something a bit special. Woodward studied in Warsaw, hearing Sviatoslav Richter playing Prokofiev and striking up a friendship with Lina Prokofieva. Steeped in such an atmosphere, Woodward’s insights into this music are invaluable, and this very fine recording brings together works from Prokofiev’s early to middle periods. 

Prokofiev’s piano sonatas are a central part of 20th century piano repertoire, and while these have tended to eclipse many of the smaller works in this programme the fearsome Sarcasms and the superb Visions Fugitives pop up fairly frequently. The Sarcasms are a powerful entry into this world. A quote from the booklet gives some clue as to the earthy tones which emerge from your loudspeakers as the Tempestuoso erupts: “According to Lina Prokofieva and Sviatoslav Richter, both Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich loathed nuanced piano playing …” This is not to deny the music its dynamic contrasts or often expressive core, but creates a directness of communication untroubled by a search for rarity of timbre. The third piece’s Allegro precipitato has machine like pile-driver chords like something out of Mossolov’s Iron Foundry, but Prokofiev is always shining shafts of light onto even the grimmest pictures, and the central section relents and allows us to soar above the clouds for a moment. Woodward’s playing allows for all of these changes of mood, and on a grander canvas than Boris Berman’s Chandos recording, volume 2 of the complete Prokofiev piano music from which on CHAN 8881 happens to contain both the Sarcasms and the Visions Fugitives. Berman is good of course, but Woodward sounds more Russian, and more convincingly chased by the demons which inspire.
The sheer zip and sense of fun in the Prelude Op. 12 No 7 is terrific in this recording, Prokofiev letting rip with the most incredibly banal of melodic ideas and transforming them into something radiant. This ray of sunshine is placed deliberately next to the shivers of the Suggestion Diabolique, which is a black and white caper B movie encapsulated into two and a half minute shocker. The Four Etudes are the earliest works here, but show no shortage of that precocious and always precarious Prokofiev genius. Oleg Marshev’s Prokofiev CD on Danacord DACOCD395 (see review) is excellent, but also shows the difference between a more rhapsodic performance and Woodward’s less romantic approach. Woodward is by no means deaf to the traditions echoed in this music, but manages to make it sound much less like Rachmaninov than Marshev. There is something in his boldness of colour, allowing the notes to speak for themselves, which strikes at the heart of Prokofiev’s gritty passions.
The later opus numbers of Musiques D’enfants, Pensées and the pieces Nocturne and Paysage are pretty much grouped together. These just precede 1935 and 1936 which were the years Prokofiev wrote Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf respectively, though while the style is unmistakable the moody Lento of Pensées for instance creates a world which defies the forging of anticipatory links. The latest piece in the programme is the Nocturne Op. 43bis No 2 which is another dark statement, and full of Prokofiev’s marvellous labyrinthine harmonic twists and turns. The occasionally uneven skipping and narrative feel of the Gavotta is unmistakeably Russian, and this sits nicely next to Paysage which gives the impression of developing those repeated notes. Carefully chosen programming puts the most famous piece here, the March from L’amour des trois oranges, which Woodward delivers with superb élan and a sense of brutal satire.
When it comes to the Visions Fugitives it is impossible not to have a listen to Sviatoslav Richter’s incomplete selection as they appear on the Philips ‘Authorised Recordings’ release from 1994, 438 627-2. Richter is incomparable, but you have to hand it to Woodward for being his own man in these pieces. No. 3 Allegretto for instance, becomes a quite a jaunty outing in his case, where Richter is rather more poetic and reserved. The spectacular Animato which follows is a firework in both pianists’ hands, Woodward driving on with a swifter tempo in the final bars and cutting 5 seconds from Richter’s timing. The remarkable Molto giocoso is one of those moments where live performance apparently sees even Richter on the ropes. Having started too fast, 11 seconds in you hear the tempo shift into a rather more uphill gear and the piece never really recovers. Woodward’s excellent vignette shows how it should be done, tempo consistent and lower sonorities shining through with a clarion sustain. When you listen to Prokofiev’s own 1935 recording there’s that shift in tempo again, just as with Richter, but the score shows no marking to indicate this is the way it should be done.
It’s excellent to have the complete Visions Fugitives here, though there is no real shortage of recordings even beyond complete surveys of Prokofiev’s piano music. It’s more interesting to return to the source however, and Prokofiev’s own recording of extracts from this set indeed makes for fascinating listening. Without going into inch by inch comparisons there are similarities, such as the restrained intensity both musicians give to XVIII Con una dolce lentezza, and differences, such as with XVI Dolente, where Woodward’s first theme is initially a strident declamation from which echoes grow and seem to stretch into infinity. Prokofiev is gentler in his opening of this piece, nursing the notes along with rubato and building more to the rolling waves of the second section. There are numerous overlaps in programme between the Naxos disc and Woodward’s, Prokofiev having also recorded the Paysages, the Gavotta and the Suggestion Diabolique,so you will probably want to have both if this repertoire has inspired you. The early recording is surprisingly good in terms of sound quality by the way.
Roger Woodward’s Prokofiev, Works for Piano 1908-1938 is a superb set of performances and an excellent recording, the Hamburg Steinway D sounding rich and brilliant in the large but not overwhelming Eugene Goossens Hall acoustic. Recorded in 1991, this is originally an ABC production and is released under license, though I’ve hunted and not been able to find evidence of another physical release from the period. It seems remarkable that this recording is not better known, but this superbly presented Celestial Harmonies disc will, I hope, rectify this state of affairs.

http://prkfv.businesscatalyst.comCELESTIAL HARMONIES 13292-2 [SA] Musicweb International Classical

RECORDING OF THE MONTH - Musicweb-International

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Works for Piano: 1908-1938
Sarcasmes Op.17 (1912-14) [9:23]
Prelude Op.12 No.7 (1906-13) [2:12]
Suggestion Diabolique Op.4 No.4 (1910-12) [2:32]
Four Etudes Op.2 (1909) [10:24]
Musiques d’enfants Op.65 (1935) [2:26]
Pensées Op.62 (1933/34) [13:33]
Nocturne Op.43bis No.2 (1938) [4:56]
Gavotta Op.32 No.3 (1918) [1:30]
Paysage Op.59 No.2 (1933/34) [2:19]
March from L’amour des trois oranges Op.33 bis (1922) [1:31]
Visions Fugitives Op.22 (1915-17) [24:01]

Roger Woodward (piano)

rec. 1991, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia


Pianist Roger Woodward calls Prokofiev “one of the greatest musical
iconoclasts in Russian musical history” and with good reason. While
composers such as Rachmaninov, Medtner, Myaskovsky and Kabalevsky
continued writing music in the nineteenth century tradition, Prokofiev,
who was only nine years old at the dawn of the new century was
determined to write music that was new and different and ‘of the
century’. His music is daring, exciting, at times furious, and
contemporary audiences must have been shocked and baffled by what they
The very first pieces on this disc, his Sarcasmes that date from
1912-14 are full of brash almost dissonant music requiring something
close to a pounding of the piano keys. It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t or
couldn’t write gentle music. Sandwiched between the Sarcasmes and
Suggestion Diabolique, another piece that truly deserves its title, is
hisPrelude Op.12 No.7. This contains the most exquisitely beautiful and
dreamlike sounds you could wish for. The first of theFour Etudes Op.2
from 1909 once again shows his liking for music that sounds angry, the
kind by which an evil giant from a children’s film might be
represented. This is not to say that such pieces are not enjoyable; on
the contrary they are very appealing and cause both excitement, and
wonder at the pianist’s ability to have their hands rush up and down
the keyboard in demented fashion. Roger Woodward describes these as
being “characterised by abrasive, rampaging sonorities”. Prokofiev even
went to extent of giving different time signatures to each hand. That
he was able to play them in public shows that he was an extremely
talented pianist who did not demand anything from anyone that he
couldn’t manage himself.
After the etudes come two of his pieces for children which are truly
delightful. Written in 1935 they were in response to a great demand for
children’s music. He is quoted in the notes as explaining that it was
at that time that he set about writingPeter and the Wolf. It’s a piece
that he completed within a week. He took another week to orchestrate
it; a staggering achievement but a measure of this incredible genius of
a composer.
His Pensées show his reflective side in these gentle dreamy little
vignettes. The last of these is the longest piece on the disc at just
under seven minutes showing how economical a composer he was. He could
create a whole world of ideas and expressions within a remarkably short
amount of time. It is interesting to read in the notes that he
considered the second of thesePensées “one of the best things I have
ever written”. I wonder what you will think as I can’t hear anything in
it that would cause such a reaction. That’s undoubtedly down to an
inability on my part or maybe it’s simply down to “what turns you on”.
Continuing with more calm and beautiful sounds we come to his Nocturne
Op.43bis No.2 a wonderful evocation of night-time. This is followed by
a charmingGavotta from 1918 and a Paysage from 1933-34. Both of these
bear Prokofiev’s unmistakable signature throughout their brief lengths.
TheMarch from L’amour des trois oranges is so well known but never
fails to bring a smile to my face.
Then we come to the 20 pieces that form his Visions Fugitives Op.22
from 1915-17. This sequence constitutes a third of the entire playing
time of the disc. It is fascinating to read Roger Woodward’s reactions
when he first came upon them at the age of 14 in 1957. He was shown
them by his teacher Alexander Sverjensky and the young pianist fall
“head over heels in love with this composer”. It is also just as
fascinating to read of the reactions to that which good Russian friends
of his had. These friends were “steeped in the golden age of
Tchaikovsky and Pushkin” who were dubious about his obvious enthusiasm.
Woodward explains that these miniatures were good preparation for “the
wide range of more complex textures that were constantly transcribed
throughout the middle and late periods”. Woodward likens the set to the
movements of a kaleidoscope which include “passing references to
Schönberg, Debussy, Stravinsky and Reger” - such a telling description
of these wondrous little works. Woodward quotes Prokofiev himself in an
explanation that part of the tiny penultimate piece of the set was
based on fleeting glimpses of the fighting in the streets during the
revolution of 1917. He often caught sight of the fighting from the
security of a corner of a building, thus a true ‘vision fugitive’.
This disc only helps confirm the genius of Prokofiev, a man who was so
afflicted by that particular feeling of nostalgia that émigré Russians
experience that, despite all the evidence, he felt compelled to return
to the Soviet Union. That decision was difficult and his wife resisted
but lost the battle to restrain him. As she had no doubt feared, like
many others he had a hard time ploughing his own musical furrow. To his
credit he, again like many others, doggedly stuck at it. What brilliant
creations his time in the USSR led to and the world continues to enjoy
them today.
I first came upon Roger Woodward with the first ever available
recordings of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues that he made for
RCA in 1975. I was bowled over by his masterly playing…....his
playing here is just breathtaking and one could never tire of hearing
this disc. His booklet notes are equally excellent and help to bring
Prokofiev well and truly into focus as man as well as musician.
This is a disc that any Prokofiev lover will want to own. I hope there
will be more because though Woodward writes that Prokofiev “struggled
with composition” he wrote some of the twentieth century’s most
enduring works.
Steve Arloff

magical sounds came from every part of the instrument”    Sir Yehudi Menuhin