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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Richter plays Prokofiev

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 2 May 2005 08:14:40 -0500

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      Serge Prokofiev
        Piano Music

*  Piano Concerto No. 5 in G
*  Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat
*  Visions fugitives, op. 22/3, 6, & 9

Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Witold
Rowicki
DGG 449744-2 Total time: 55:22

Summary for the Busy Executive: Stronger than steel.

I tend to forget Prokofiev as one of the great pianists, since the
composer overshadows everything else for me.  But this CD drove home
what I forgot.  Prokofiev wrote four of his five piano concerti for his
own use (the fourth, for the left hand, was for that difficult human
being, Paul Wittgenstein; he may never have played it).  Prokofiev's
piano concerti surely must stand among the earliest modernist examples.
He began the series in 1911 and finished up with number five in 1932.
Keep in mind that Stravinsky's piano concerto appeared in 1924, Gershwin's
in 1925, Bartok's first in 1926, and Ravel's two in 1931, by which time
Prokofiev had almost completed the series.  According to contemporary
accounts and reviews, Prokofiev's piano technique - formidable to the
point of intimidating - came over as hard and glittering.  At any rate,
that certainly describes most of his piano concerti, and this one
especially.  The liner notes make much of the fifth's difficulty and
suggest that this may be one reason why it isn't as well known as, say,
the third.  Well, the third isn't exactly a pushover, either.  It may
well be that the fifth's reputation as "unplayable" have kept virtuosi
from tackling it.

Neither a work's difficulty nor fears for his reputation ever kept Richter
away from music he liked.  In fact, I doubt he ever thought about such
things.  He always seemed not so much a player as an incredibly profound
musical mind.  I listen to a Richter performance and almost never think,
"What fingers!" His technique is so strong that a mere listener like me
needn't think about the mechanics of production.  I do, however, think,
"What power!" Often, Richter gives me the illusion that he channels the
composer.  Certainly, that's the case here.

The fifth concerto has an unusual design: five movements.  However,
the first three play with the same material but have it assume different
characters.  It's like looking at a sculpture under different light and
from different angles: the first movement, a martial 3/4; the second, a
pawky moderato march alternating with a jig; the third, cuts the first
movement to the bone, throwing the highlights at us, one after the other.
We don't get anything substantially different thematically until the
larghetto fourth movement.  Consequently, we perceive a "double" structure:
a piano concerto in both five and three movements.  Richter conveys the
architectural ambiguity, which means at the least that he understands
this concerto better than most.  Up to now, the concerto has largely
come across as fun and high spirits.  Consequently, the slow movement
catches the listener off-guard.  Of all Prokofiev's piano-concerto slow
movements, this strikes me as his deepest, anticipating the balcony scene
of his Romeo and Juliet ballet, as well as parts of his sixth symphony.
Those who see Modern music as a break with Romantic should listen to
this.  Like any Romantic concerto worthy of the name, it invests its
most profound emotions in the slow movement (concerti didn't always work
this way).  It doesn't, however, merely moon about.  There's plenty of
steel in it as well.  The Haydnesque finale allows the soloist and
orchestra to kick up their heels once more, blowing away any residual
melancholy.  Richter handles the flash but manages to make you forget
about the technique and concentrate on the music.  And it's wonderful
music.  Prokofiev's stock has declined as Shostakovich's has risen.  In
recent years, one notes a tendency among writers to patronize him as a
shallow, though musical petite maitre, a psychological lightweight.
Richter throws all that nonsense over in the slow movement.  The pianist
avoids every cliche of "slow-movement playing," carving out something
both granitic and heartbreaking.

Around 1939, Prokofiev conceived of his sixth, seventh, and eighth piano
sonatas in a group. The sixth appeared in 1940, the seventh in 1942, and
the eighth in 1944.  As European events marched along in the late Thirties
and early Forties, they became responses to the Second World War.  Each
has its own character.  The sixth is epic, in much the same way as Nevsky,
written around the same time.  The seventh - the most widely-played -
is the most direct, the most efficient, saying the most in as few notes
as possible.  It's also the starkest and most aggressively Modern of the
three.  The first movement is as tonally untethered as Prokofiev ever
got, but the rhythms are strong to the point of brutality.  The eighth
sonata, however, I think the richest.  The richness, however, comes
at a cost. The sonata doesn't escape the charge of a certain looseness.
Those expecting a Classical or Romantic sonata should look elsewhere.
I'd describe the first movement as a fantasia, beginning with Prokofiev
night-music (Richter brings out the similarities to Chopin) and changing
moods frequently and, for the most part, seamlessly.  In terms of both
length and power, this is the big movement.  If the sixth beats a patriotic
drum and the seventh portrays mainly mechanized conflict, the eighth
reflects, without bombast, on past and present loss.  Even the strife-laden
sections of the movement exhibit a certain distance.  The understatement
creates an even more telling effect at climaxes.  This isn't brutal
power, but very human, even majestic anguish.  Nevertheless, the movement
ends with the recollection of struggle.  The second movement resembles
in its "feel" the sentimental slow movement of the seventh sonata.
Perhaps, "sentimental" isn't quite right, since it implies emotional
manipulation.  Prokofiev walks a very fine line.  I get the mental picture
of soldiers singing a favorite ballad - the Soviet equivalent of "Lilli
Marlene" - during a lull.  The finale of the eighth begins, all things
considered, a bit optimistically, but gradually becomes more and more
reflective, as if the composer refused to settle for a simplistic "keeping
on the sunny side." When the opening themes return, they do so in a
proper scale, building to something very close to elation.  Nevertheless,
the effect of this last movement differs sharply from its counterpart
in the seventh, which - though undoubtedly powerful - always smacks to
me of agitprop and bravado, possibly because Prokofiev attacks the
material so single-mindedly.  In the eighth, Prokofiev gives us a kind
of clear-eyed heroism.

The program ends with a few of the early Visions fugitives, a brilliant
set of miniatures.  As the title implies, they seek to capture evanescence.
It's a Prokofiev take on Impressionism, without actually using any of
the harmonies or techniques of Impressionist music.  The musical outlines
are generally sharper than what one gets from the French.  These little
pieces linger in the mind more than their length says they should.

Richter, of course, stars on this program, but conductor Witold Rowicki
provides accompaniment worthy of his soloist.  Among postwar conductors,
Rowicki almost always flew under the radar, perhaps because he had to
make his career in the Communist bloc, but I frankly prefer him to Karajan
(then again, I prefer just about anybody to Karajan in symphonic music).
Even so, I recommend all his recordings, especially the Dvorak cycle on
Philips.  If you see these, snap 'em up.

Steve Schwartz

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