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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Piano Music

  • Sonata #1, Op. 1
  • Sonata #2, Op. 14
  • Sonata #3, Op. 28
  • Sonata #4, Op. 29
  • Sonata #5 (first version), Op. 38
  • Sonata #5 (second version), Op. 38/135
  • Sonata #6, Op. 82
  • Sonata #7, Op. 83
  • Sonata #8, Op. 84
  • Sonata #9, Op. 104
  • Sonata #10, Op. 137
  • 4 Pieces, Op. 4
  • Toccata, Op. 11
  • Sarcasms, Op. 17
  • Visions fugitives, Op. 22
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 7/8/9 3CDs 74:46 + 70:58 + 64:30

Summary for the Busy Executive: A triumphant return.

The fact that publishers have enormous power over the shape of our intellectual lives bothers me more than a little. With big mega-glomerates buying out the smaller independents, we see an increasing avarice for the bottom line and less of a concern for, as they say, kulcha. Of course, people will have their cakes and ale, and I like to think of my self as gorging and swilling with the heartiest of them, even though I draw the line at American Idol and Fox News, both of which are pure toxins. Although less concerned for prestige than it used to be, Big Publishing still allows quality a little room for credibility, but one gets the feeling that they'd rather make a bunch of money off How I Made Fifty Million Dollars and Lost Eighty Pounds Just by Sitting on My Can. At any rate, I initially encountered this recording as a Newport Classic. Pianist Barbara Nissman was, I believe, the first to program all the sonatas, and to great acclaim. The recording then went out of print. This release from Pierian marks its return. That it should ever have gone out of circulation I think a disgrace. We owe a lot to small labels like Pierian.

Like Rachmaninoff and Medtner of a slightly-older generation, Prokofieff was, at least when he began, a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer. A significant chunk of his mountain of piano music he wrote for his own use. After he gave up touring, the piano remained his readiest form of musical expression. Shostakovich supposedly remarked (cattily) that Prokofieff orchestrated his piano music, while he, Shostakovich, wrote directly to score. During his lifetime, Prokofieff had the reputation of an unforgiving Modernist, with notes hitting the ear like rivets. What strikes me about Nissman's recording is its Romanticism. Often, these works stand only a very short step away from the piano writing of somebody like Rachmaninoff. Nissman seizes lyrical opportunities most other pianists have missed, and the result yields a deeper understanding of this composer. Prokofieff didn't suddenly turn "soft" when he returned to the Soviet Union for good in the mid-Thirties. The Romantic singing line was almost always part of him and purer in him than in many late Romantics, since he stripped Chopinesque filigree and ornament from tune.

The first two piano sonatas come from Prokofieff's student days, and both show impressive assurance. The first, especially because of its brief one-movement structure and its high-Romantic idiom, brings to mind some of Scriabin's early sonatas, although the latter show more willingness to explore. The first sonata tells us very little about the Prokofieff to come, other than he knows how to write for the instrument. Nevertheless, it does show the prodigious composing technique Prokofieff had even at this early stage. All of its nearly-seven minutes come from two ideas stated in the opening couple of measures. Sonata #2, written three years later in 1912, shows a considerable progress in Prokofieff's search for a characteristic voice. The sonata stands in a kind of half-light (either the twilight of Romanticism or the dawn of Modernism), with themes (though not, I admit, their treatment) that could have come straight from Rachmaninoff, as well as the combination of steel and night song that became Prokofieff's calling card, particularly descriptive of the slow third movement. The finale could have come from Rachmaninoff's Paganini rhapsody, were it not for the fact that Prokofieff anticipates it by more than twenty years.

Prokofieff produced versions of his third and fourth sonatas as early as 1907 and 1908, still a student. He revised them into their definitive form in 1917. In the third, in one movement like the first, alternates Prokofieff's toccata style (the named Toccata, very Stravinskian, comes from 1912) with his new-found lyrical vein. For me, Prokofieff has found himself in this work. He has totally embraced Modernism, probably through the aggressive dissonance of the Sarcasms (1912-14), for me at least in part an offshoot of Prokofieff's love-hate relationship with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. At any rate, in this sonata one recognizes the composer after a few beats. The fourth sonata explores more deeply and more variously the ways Prokofieff can sing. At this point, the Romantic riffs have become highly abstracted and streamlined. Like Edmund Dantes and the count of Monte Cristo, you can see the one in the other if you look hard enough, but overall the sonata strikes one as Thoroughly Modern Prokofieff.

The fifth sonata exists in two versions – 1923 and the 1953 revision – and Nissman offers them both. Last thoughts aren't always the best. While the revision exhibits greater concision and cohesion, I prefer the first version by a small margin. The ideas bite more, and the modulations are more piquant. In the first movement especially, the original begins with an adumbration of Prokofieff's Peter and the Wolf vein, all pastoral innocence. Almost immediately, a rumble hints at darker things below the surface. The movement becomes a little drama of the first idea trying to shake the second and, in the process, transforming itself. The revision alters the rumble idea, and the contrast lacks the strength to sustain the drama. Definitely the original comes out on top. The second movement, in three-quarter time, has a bit of a toy-march flavor to it. You can hear little drum rolls in it. As far as I can tell from mere listening, Prokofieff left this movement alone. The finale, which emphasizes repeated notes in various pianistic guises, becomes leaner and more dramatic in the revision. I just may program my machine to play the original first two movements and the revised finale.

Sonatas six through eight, known collectively as the "war sonatas," begin in 1939. Their completion dates differ: 1940, 1942, and 1944. Indeed, I first became acquainted with Prokofieff's piano sonatas through Horowitz's neurasthenic reading of the seventh. I played it for a pianist friend of mine, who then took it up (not as well as Horowitz). However, it took me some time to hear the other two. Just by luck, I heard all the earlier sonatas first. Those and the seventh stimulated me to seek out all of Prokofieff's solo piano work. However, my benchmarks for the sixth and eighth are Cliburn and Richter, respectively. Undoubtedly, these sonatas have garnered the most appreciative critical commentary – certainly well-deserved – but they have tended to overshadow Prokofieff's other sonatas, all of which seem to me written at a high level. Inevitably, some may move listeners more than others, but you can say the same for Beethoven's sonatas.

The sixth begins with alarums. Almost the entire movement comes from this figure, although Prokofieff changes its rhythm and character. One other idea, a pentatonic one (it can be played exclusively on the black keys of the piano) that shares opening notes with Mozart's "Jupiter" finale, provides some of the contrast. The harmonic idiom of the alarum music shows more dissonance than in the earlier sonatas, while pentatonicism tends to lighten things – not here, however. You hold your breath, as if you wait for the horrors to come. The second movement, an allegretto, begins with the air of a folk dance and becomes more thoughtful as it goes along. The third movement, noble and singing, may well stand as the most sheerly beautiful section of the cycle. The finale, another brilliant Prokofieff toccata, begins a bit manically, but deflates and then regroups. A feature that Nissman brings out (and Cliburn does not) is the tossing about of isolated notes wildly out of key – a trait that I contend Prokofieff got from Tchaikovsky (listen to the march in the Pathétique, among many other examples). A coda brings in the fate-knocking-at-the-door rhythmic motif from Beethoven's Fifth and makes a big deal of it, only to have us close with the energy of the toccata idea.

I have probably imprinted on Horowitz's recording of the seventh. Nissman's reading differs significantly, and I had to listen to it several times before I reached some understanding of what she might have been up to. A lot of ink has been spent talking about how the first movement in particular throws off tonality, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies when critics attempted to rehabilitate Prokofieff from the old-fogey dungeon by arguing how with-it he was, but to me that's not the most interesting thing about the sonata in general. Nissman lets me hear the links to Beethoven's sonatas, especially the "Waldstein." In the first movement, a grotesque march, she sacrifices Horowitz's weight for a greater drive and grip. At times, she reminds you of Ginastera's malambos. The lyrical sections register more strongly than with Horowitz as well. The second movement has always seemed a little boozy to me. Nissman gets rid of that. Time seems to hang, and the finale bursts out of the gate – the same rhetorical motion as in the final two movements of the "Waldstein."

Of the war sonatas, I consider the eighth the richest – the most humane, the most adult. However, structurally it lacks the cohesion of the seventh. There's almost too much good stuff, especially in the massive first movement, but you don't want any of it cut. Prokofieff seems here and there to ramble. The Beethoven fate-knocking motif shows up once, like a fish with a hat in a Surrealist painting. However, Nissman brings one of her best talents to bear – the ability to bring coherence out of what seems like musical muddle. She understands architecture like few other performers. She hasn't Richter's power or exploitation of extremes, but she doesn't need these things. The sonata does just fine with her more contained approach, and for me she gets more pathos, though less majesty, out of the music than Richter does. The slow second movement can suffer from the same sentimental maltreatment as the slow movement from the seventh often gets, although Prokofieff indulges himself less. Nissman approaches the music with wisdom, turning the movement into a mini version of the Sixth Symphony to come. The finale has always somewhat puzzled me. It mixes elation with heroic struggle. It also calls in gestures from earlier movements, often turned upside-down. If the recycling of these ideas has any emotional import, it's flown over my head. Nevertheless, Nissman brings out these things like no other pianist, not even Richter. If the sixth and seventh sonatas have easily-accessible extramusical meanings – two views of the war, the first a brave anticipation of the worst (a bit like Alexander Nevsky, composed around the same time) and the second a vision of mechanized slaughter – in the seventh, Prokofieff ruminates on the experience of actual war: the knowledge that one must find happiness all over again and in the face of suffering, to boot. This is a lot of freight for one score to haul in under half an hour, but haul it, it does.

The ninth sonata comes from 1953, the year the composer died. He had had several hellish years, condemned by the Party in 1948 and moreover a very sick man. Many see in his late works a falling-off, but for me Prokofieff was never all that consistent. I happen to love among the late works the cello sonata, Winter Bonfire, The Stone Flower, the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, even the cantata On Guard for Peace. The last completed piano sonata lacks the aggression of its immediate predecessors. Excepting the last movement, it makes fewer technical demands and makes its points gently, almost relaxed, as if Prokofieff no longer had to prove he knew how to play the piano. It reminds me of hearing a sage in an unbuttoned mood. The composer never lived to complete, or even write much of, the tenth sonata. We have a mere forty-second fragment, probably something he wrote down in one go. Nevertheless, you wish he could have finished it. He never lost his power to fascinate.

Nissman fills up her set with a generous selection of early piano music, most notably the Sarcasms and the magnificent miniatures that comprise Visions fugitives. She does wonderfully in Sarcasms, getting the acerbity without resorting to mere banging. However, I take issue with her Visions. For me, this set has always been about evanescence and half-lights. She's much too positive. However, the sonatas comprise the meat of the album, and here Nissman shines. She makes Prokofieff's sometimes loose narratives gel because, rather than chase some bit of momentary flash, she always has the movement as a whole in mind. Even more, she plays with what I can describe only as an historical imagination. Prokofieff didn't spring from nothing. A trained pianist, he studied his predecessors and took something from many of them. He surely put his own twist on what he took, but if you listen, you can hear a bit of Haydn, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and others as well. No other pianist I've heard comes close to her ability to put the grand tradition before you. My one criticism is minor. I couldn't hear it when I listened to speakers, but with earphones, her grunts came through at the big moments. Obviously, she was working hard, but I'd prefer that she didn't let me know exactly how hard.

Nevertheless, another welcome re-release of an outstanding recording from Pierian.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz