This is all rarely performed repertory and by a pianist making his debut recording. Yet, one is hardly surprised that the often adventurous Naxos label has taken on this kind of challenge considering their past risky ventures on disc. Years ago you would very seldom have seen a recording like this issued except in a complete set of Prokofiev's piano works and by a pianist with established credentials.
Pianist DongKyu Kim was the first prize winner at the 2010 San Marino Competition. He is obviously a hugely talented pianist and he approaches Prokofiev with a fairly imaginative style. Some may charge that he is a bit mechanical or poker-faced in his performances of many of these pieces. But his manner is quite thrilling and fully convincing. Yes, sometimes he turns to a staccato-style of playing as in the opening of Op. 2, #1, but it works, the music moving seamlessly from machine-like drive to a subtle youthful humor and confidence. The ensuing Moderato has a lyrical flow to its proud nonchalance in Kim's hands. Kim plays the exceedingly challenging Andante semplice brilliantly. (Kissin declared Liszt had never dreamed of such difficulties!) Actually, you would never know this work was such a virtuosic challenge listening to Kim who tosses it off with seeming ease. The jazzy Presto energico that closes out the set emerges as a witty, energetic little gem.
The Four Pieces, Op. 3, are also youthful works of considerable appeal. The most interesting of them is the opening one, Tale: Andantino, a dark, haunting piece that avoids an Impressionistic sense despite having a slightly Debussyan character. #4, a frenetic, spastic piece is quite thrilling here. Kim plays the entire set as well as anyone I've heard.
In the somewhat more substantive Op. 32 set of Four Pieces, Kim effectively brings out the humor, quaint character and subtleties of each of these works. The Minuet is especially charming, though I wish Kim had a little more forward thrust in the ensuing Gavotte. Prokofiev himself recorded the Gavotte and played it splendidly, as did Chiu (Harmonia Mundi HMU907191), Boris Berman (Chandos CHAN8851) and perhaps one or two other Prokofiev completists. The closing Waltz, with its ethereal character, comes across with a dreamy, profound sense.
The Tenth Sonata was intended to be a reworking of the Sonatina #1, Op. 54, but Prokofiev died after writing only thirty-seven bars, which comprise slightly more than a minute here. Barbara Nissman and Murray MacLachlan made recordings of this fragment, though Nissman's version is shorter, offering only the introductory passage and leaving out the presentation of the main theme. At any rate, Kim's account is the best of these.
The two sonatinas are given spirited, totally convincing readings. These are hard works to bring off because of their often dry character and lack of catchy themes. But they are worthwhile pieces, and Kim manages to bring them to life with a lyrical sense and brilliant colors.
The Fifth Sonata is the most substantive work here, though it is still a largely neglected piece. The first recording of the Prokofiev Fifth came from a most unlikely source – Alfred Brendel, who recorded it in its original version in the early 1950s around the time he also recorded the Prokofiev Fifth Piano Concerto. Kim offers an imaginative account of the sonata: listen to his subtle phrasing of first movement's alternate theme, how he makes it seem both ethereal and brash. In the development section this theme turns brusque and angry in Kim's hands, which is all to the good. Overall, he offers a most effective rendering of this subtle movement. The ensuing movements, especially the finale, are well conceived and played by Kim: try his thrilling ending to the finale.
The sound reproduction on this Naxos disc is vivid and powerful, and the notes by Richard Whitehouse are informative. In sum, there is a lot of humor, sarcasm and energy in these works – and a lot of good music, especially in the sonata. One day these pieces may well enjoy a good measure of popularity, like the three War Sonatas, Visions Fugitives or several other works in Prokofiev's piano output.
Speaking of popularity, there appears to be a small number of dedicated Prokofiev detractors who, without ever citing evidence, insist his popularity has been declining in the last decade or so compared to 20th century composers like Shostakovich and Stravinsky. But the facts simply do not support their claims. Quite the contrary. The League of American Orchestras, among many activities, tracks the repertory performed by well over 100 orchestras. In the eight concert seasons posted at their website, from 2001-02 through 2009-10, Prokofiev was more often performed in five of those eight seasons than both Shostakovich and Stravinsky. And remember, this would not take into account performances of ballet and opera or piano recitals, three areas where Prokofiev would have a considerable edge, especially over Shostakovich. In addition, Prokofiev has more recordings listed than either Shostakovich or Stravinsky at Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon France and ArchivMusic. Moreover, YouTube, as I write this, lists Prokofiev's videos at a whopping 78,000, Shostakovich at 26,000 and Stravinsky at 20,100! A 2008 survey by mega-retailer HMV of their Classical recording sales over five years in the UK and Republic of Ireland reported Prokofiev 12th on their list, Shostakovich 20th and Stravinsky 38th! I rest my case.
I also rest my case with this recording, which I highly recommend.
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings