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CD Review

Live at the Concertgebouw

Paladino 77
Lisa Smirnova, piano
Recorded live July 5, 1994 - Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Paladino Music PMR0077 54:27
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As the reader can observe from the heading these recordings were made live in 1994 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, apparently from one concert and presumably with no touch-up sessions following. If that's the case, they are all the more remarkable performances for their accuracy, sensitivity and excitement. The sound reproduction is especially fine as well, making this quite an excellent offering from the label Paladino Music. That said, the total timing of 54:27 is somewhat on the paltry side. Still, the playing – and of course the music – are outstanding. I should point out too, this is, as far as I can determine, the first release of these performances on CD.

In her intelligently written album notes the Moscow-born, Austrian-based pianist Lisa Smirnova makes a link between the two composers, noting their fairly strict observance of Classical forms and other structural features, as well as their sense of portraying life in an "epic" way in these sonatas. Indeed, they certainly do share those characteristics, even though Beethoven's last sonata reaches a triumphal sort of celestial resolution, where Prokofiev's penultimate sonata, the last of the so-called "War Sonatas", is conflicted and mostly dark, arguably reaching an ambivalent, if not tragic ending.

The Prokofiev Eighth opens the disc and features a broadly paced, sensitively rendered first movement, with that remarkable alternate theme sounding so haunting here in its ominous tolling and gossamer beauty. But then the main theme and its cluster of second subjects and variants are also phrased with great feeling and intelligence, all the drama and tension unfolding with tremendous impact. Impact too describes the building tension and climax coming in the development section, where once again that alternate theme rings out, now with power and authority to crown the sense of profound tragedy. Smirnova renders the extended recapitulation with the same kind of sensitivity and attention to detail. The coda may be a little lackluster, as is the ending to the finale, but these are the only two moments in the performance that may be a little short on energy and leaning a bit toward caution.

The second movement is lovely and the finale, with the exception noted above, is also very well conceived and executed. The return of the first movement alternate theme is utterly hypnotic in Smirnova's hands. Richter, Raekallio, Glemser, Giltburg and others have offered fine accounts of this great sonata but this performance by Smirnova is in their league. As live performances go, her only strong competition comes from Richter from his several recital recordings of this work, including his 1960 effort at Carnegie Hall.

Smirnova's Beethoven is just as convincing. The first movement introduction builds to a powerful arrival of the main theme, and once again her phrasing is masterly in its sense for drama, the dynamics and tempo choices fitting perfectly into her grand take on this powerful movement. The second and final movement is given as strong a performance as you're likely to encounter in a live setting. It's that good: try her brilliant account of the third variation, with its boogie-woogie or Ragtime elements sounding so colorful, yet remaining in character with the rest of the music. As she builds toward the angelic serenity of the grand ending, Smirnova plays with a little more muscle than is usual, stripping away the layers of mist other pianists convey in the music and letting in sunshine and a sense of vitality instead. It all works just fine, yielding a performance almost unique in its own more epic way, allowing it to stand with the many other fine accounts by Buchbinder, Barenboim, Brendel, Schnabel and scores of others. Again, for a live performance, this one is a standout.

As mentioned at the outset the sound reproduction in both sonatas is excellent. In sum, these are quite outstanding performances from a pianist who, frankly, should be better known. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2017, Robert Cummings