SERGEI PROKOFIEV: THE COMPLETE PIANO SONATA. Barbara Nissman, piano.
Includes Four Pieces, Op. 4; Toccata, Op. 11; Sarcasms, Op. 17; Visions
Fugitives, Op. 22. Pierian 007/8/9. Previously released on Newport Classic
60092/3/4, and reproduced by license from Sony. Notes on each work by
Yefim Bronfman: Sonatas 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9: Sony SK 53273, Sony MK 44680
Bernd Glemser: Sonatas 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9: Naxos 554270, Naxos 555030
Hans Graf: Sonata 5: Period Records SPL 599
Sviatoslav Richter: Sonata 8: DG 449 744-2
As a composer, Prokofiev was enormously inventive melodically and
rhythmically without departing as drastically from traditional musical
practice as other 20th Century composers more consistently regarded as
modernist.; all his sonatas have key signatures, for instance, and he
had a very great lyrical gift, evident throughout his career. Poulenc
nicknamed him the "Russian Liszt." In some of his works, especially early
in his career, Prokofiev used enough dissonance and irregular rhythms
to earn himself a reputation as the "bad boy" of music, and some of these
works, recorded here, he thought best not to show his conservative
conservatory professors. I have to confess that to my own ears, dissonance
needs to be much greater than this even to register as such in my mind.
I do not know of a twentieth century composer who wrote as many piano
sonatas as Prokofiev. And, in the tradition of Mozart and Beethoven,
Prokofiev wrote some of his piano works for his own use in performance;
he earned his living at various times, especially while in exile from
Russia, performing on the concert circuit. Some of them-especially--are
clearly fiendishly difficult to play and, accordingly, thrilling to
Prokofiev was a powerful pianist, with large hands. These celebrated
performances by Nissman exhibit the required power--as well as the
inherent lyricism--in the works. The selected comparisons I list also
exhibit power and lyricism in varying degrees. Bronfman, Glemser and
Richter are all brilliant pianists. In preparing this review I spent
quite a few hours in one-on-one comparisons of different performances
of each sonata, and in the process acquiring a better appreciation, not
only of the works but also the range of legitimate interpretations of
them. A soloist necessarily displays differences of both skill and
musical temperament even while respecting a composer's intentions.
(As I have not had convenient access to the scores, I have not checked
some passages about which I have wondered if the soloists were taking
liberties--though my Italian dictionary got some use.) Without attempting
an exhaustive description I will comment on some differences I found
Nissman's phrasing and articulation are very clear, notably in passages
where both hands are playing important lines, and her playing is
straightforward and unmannered. Her range of dynamics is great, from
the quietly gentle to the thunderous. Prokofiev's pianistic style tends
strongly to the staccato-percussive, but not always; Nissman's playing
can be resonant or bell-like when called for.
Prokofiev's piano sonatas can be grouped into "early"-1-5; the "war
sonatas," written during World War II, and which were among the works
which got him into official trouble in 1948; and No. 9, a late work
which Nissman says is "the most pastoral and perhaps the most accessible."
There is a fragment of a tenth, which is included in this collection.
The first numbered sonata (though preceeded by six others) is also
Prokofiev's Op.1, in F minor. In a single movement, less than seven
minutes long, its style does not differ greatly from Rachmaninoff's.
Prokofiev's Sonata No. 3, in A minor, Op. 28 ("From Old Notebooks")
is also in a single movement. Marked "Allegro tempestoso," it is certainly
stormy for the most part, but is twice relieved by a gentle second
Nissman gives an especially brilliant performance of Sonata 2, D minor,
Op. 14, which is in four movements. Bronfman is also excellent, showing
extraordinary rhythmic control, as in all of his playing. He takes the
first movement faster than Nissman. Sonata 4, Op. 29, C minor (also
named "From Old Notebooks" is in three movements. The first is marked
Allegro molto sostenuto, but in the absence of a score I am not too sure
about that "sostenuto" part, because the tempo certainly varies. The
second movement is exquisite, as Nissman plays it, both in its gentle
lyricism and rhythmic expressiveness. Glemser, the winner of seventeen
(!) international competitions, plays more sharply and more heavily than
Nissman in that andante. (The heaviness may be partly the recording
engineer's mike placement, which definitely brings out that end of the
keyboard in Glemser's recordings.)
Sonata No. 5, C major, Op. 38, is perhaps the Cinderella of Prokofiev's
sonatas, not always getting enough respect, but it is actually my favorite.
I love it. Its fresh crispness, especially as played by Hans Graf,
whose performance-of uncertain vintage-- I have on a truly ancient vinyl
recording (which showed its age even when new). It once helped clear
my musical palate after years of overindulgence in 19th century music
in my youth. That recording also included a brilliant Richter/Kondrashin
performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1. Both performances
remain my favorites of those works and I don't think this is just because
I "imprinted" on them. Whether I am right or mistaken about that, my
second favorite performance of this sonata is Nissman's, probably because
she and Graf maintain about the same pace. Both play the work faster
than Bronfman and Glemser, by well over two minutes; and it is not a
long work (about 13:15 to 15:47).
Nissman is very fine in Sonata 6. (A minor, Op. 82.) Her opening is
strongly articulated. And--about a minute from the end of the first
movement-she plays decrescendo quite gracefully. In comparison, Glemser's
opening really bounces; later he is emphatic. Nissman is more impressive
than Glemser in the opening of the second movement. Her third movement,
"valzer lentissimo," is gentle with some lilt; her playing brings out
the waltz rhythm more than Glemser's. However, he respects the "lentissimo"
instruction much more; neither actually sounds too fast or too slow,
despite a considerable tempo difference. Nissman's vivace finale is
definitely lively but a slower passage is bell-like and there is some
soft playing further on. Glemser is also effective here.
Sonata No. 7, B-flat major, Op. 83, is relatively short. In the first
of three movements, marked Allegro inquieto, Nissman brings out the
restless or nervous mood more than Bronfman with very staccato playing,
and provides greater contrast. In the second movement she articulates
the melody very clearly; Bronfman's playing ranges from very emphatic
to very gentle, with some bell-like notes. As for the sensational finale:
Bronfman owns this movement as far as I am concerned. His performance
is compelling, with incredible rhythmic control, which he uses to hold
things together with a basic beat that sounds jazzy.. I heard Bronfman
perform this movement as an encore at the Milwaukee Symphony a year or
two ago and his performance was even stronger then, if possible.
The movements of Sonata No. 8, also B-flat major, Op. 84 are marked
Andante dolce, Andante sognando and Vivace. Sognando means dream-like.
In the slow movements Nissman gives a lovely performance of lovely music.
In the finale she is strong and emphatic, with good rhythm and resonant
tone. One thing that struck me in this is the emphatic way she emphasizes
the final notes of each measure. She also brings out the lyrical element
when called for, and exhibits some notable subtleties at the end. In
contrast, Richter, whom I have always admired for his strong playing,
is too heavy handed in this work, I think. Some of his playing is more
harsh than "dolce," and even a bit dull sometimes. He takes almost three
minutes more than Nissman in the long first movement. He does have some
gentle playing at one point. Richter's finale has some nice bounce at
the opening, though I wanted to see more suppleness after that. Some
other parts did not seem quite right either, but his concluding measures
were brilliant. Bronfman's performance struck me as just right throughout
and in the finale his subtly varied attack enhanced the rhythm, which
included some wonderful bounce. He provided a superb finish.
Sonata No. 9, C major, Op. 103: Allegretto, Allegro strepitoso, Andante
tranquillo, Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto. This is a lovely,
mellow work. Even the "strepitoso" movement is not very uproarious in
any of these performances; at least this mood is not sustained beyond
the opening. And the brio of the finale is mostly in evidence at the
beginning of that movement. Nissman gives a fine performance, as usual,
with a notably nice crescendo in the third movement, which is not entirely
tranquil throughout, the labeling notwithstanding. Bronfman is excellent
also. Glemser has some notably nice rippling effects at the opening of
Sonata No. 10, Op. 137, the last music Prokofiev wrote, exists only
as a 43 second fragment but Nissman plays it anyway. About it she notes
that it "shows a decided affinity to the first twelve measures of the E
minor Sonatina of 1931." She does not include that work in this collection
but she does include the second version of Sonata No. 5, Op. 38/135.
She finds it weaker than the original and I would not disagree.
In addition to this integral edition of the sonatas, this three disc
set includes more than forty minutes of some significant early works
by Prokofiev, which are mentioned prominently in his biographies. I had
not heard them before, myself, but I was extremely glad to hear Sarcasms,
Op. 17, Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, the fascinating Suggestion diabolique,
from Four Pieces, Op. 4 and the Toccata, Op. 11, which inspired several
20th century composers to take up this old form.
The rcording quality on this set is excellent. I strongly recommend it
to anyone who likes the work of this very great and distinctive composer.
Copyright 2006 R. James Tobin