LISTSERV mailing list manager LISTSERV 16.0

Help for CLASSICAL Archives


CLASSICAL Archives

CLASSICAL Archives


CLASSICAL@COMMUNITY.LSOFT.COM


View:

Message:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Topic:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Author:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

Font:

Proportional Font

LISTSERV Archives

LISTSERV Archives

CLASSICAL Home

CLASSICAL Home

CLASSICAL  August 2008

CLASSICAL August 2008

Subject:

Prokofiev by Nissman

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 6 Aug 2008 11:02:19 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (239 lines)

Sergei Prokofiev
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 0007/8/9 Total time: 74:46 + 70:58 + 64:30 (3 CDs)

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, Prokofiev
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
Prokofiev orchestrated his piano music, while he, Shostakovich, wrote
directly to score.  During his lifetime, Prokofiev 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.  Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev'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
Prokofiev to come, other than he knows how to write for the instrument.
Nevertheless, it does show the prodigious composing technique Prokofiev
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 Prokofiev'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 Prokofiev'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 Prokofiev anticipates
it by more than twenty years.

Prokofiev 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
Prokofiev's toccata style (the named Toccata, very Stravinskian, comes
from 1912) with his new-found lyrical vein.  For me, Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev'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 Prokofiev 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
Prokofiev.

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 Prokofiev'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, Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev'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 Prokofiev'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 Prokofiev'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 Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev got from Tchaikovsky (listen to
the march in the Pathetique, 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 Prokofiev 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.  Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev 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, Prokofiev 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
Prokofiev 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
Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev'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.
Prokofiev 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.

Steve Schwartz

             ***********************************************
The CLASSICAL mailing list is powered by L-Soft's renowned LISTSERV(R)
list management software together with L-Soft's HDMail High Deliverability
Mailer for reliable, lightning fast mail delivery.  For more information,
go to:  http://www.lsoft.com/LISTSERV-powered.html

Top of Message | Previous Page | Permalink

Advanced Options


Options

Log In

Log In

Get Password

Get Password


Search Archives

Search Archives


Subscribe or Unsubscribe

Subscribe or Unsubscribe


Archives

May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
February 2002
January 2002
December 2001
November 2001
October 2001
September 2001
August 2001
July 2001
June 2001
May 2001
April 2001
March 2001
January 2001
December 2000
November 2000
October 2000
September 2000
August 2000
July 2000
June 2000
May 2000
April 2000
March 2000
February 2000
January 2000
December 1999
November 1999
October 1999
September 1999
August 1999
July 1999
June 1999
May 1999
April 1999
March 1999
February 1999
January 1999
July 1997

ATOM RSS1 RSS2



COMMUNITY.LSOFT.COM

Secured by F-Secure Anti-Virus CataList Email List Search Powered by the LISTSERV Email List Manager