It is possible for a critic to make a strong argument
against cycles of piano music by one pianist. We need only think, for
example, of the vast number of Beethoven cycles recorded by pianists
throughout the last 75 years to realise that it is a temptation few
artists can resist. Look nearer to Russian music of the twentieth century.
There are cycles of the complete works of Rachmaninov by Idil Biret
and Howard Shelley; two growing cycles of music by Nicolai Medtner recorded
by Hamish Milne and Geoffrey Tozer. And of course, Prokofiev is represented
by Boris Berman (Chandos), Frederic Chiu for the complete sonatas and
a developing series from Naxos with Bernd Glemser. Add to this the current
five disks by Oleg Marshev. Now it would be churlish of me to deny pianists
the right tackle the entire corpus of a composer. All the above versions
have their merits and are obviously significant additions to the stock
of recorded music and scholarship. However I am sometimes led to wonder
such cycles are always for the best; and this doubt is for two important
Firstly, is the pianist able to present all the works
with care, commitment and adequate theoretical and historical preparation?
For example, there are some 350 minutes of music on Oleg Marshev’s five
discs. This represents some 27 different works from all periods of the
composer's life, and perhaps some two hundred or so separate movements
and individual pieces. This is a tremendous amount of ground to cover;
a vast amount of research, practice and contemplation.
Secondly, there is a danger that for the sake of completeness
some (or sometimes a lot of) indifferent pieces will be recorded. Remember
the old adage -"Not every piece by Mozart is a major masterpiece".
And the same is true of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Medtner. Sometimes
it may be best to put a piece to one side as being less than worthy
of the composer.
On the other side of the argument is the seemingly
insatiable desire for listeners and enthusiasts to be able to have a
record of everything a composer did – even if some of it is second or
third rate. I must confess that I tend to subscribe to this school of
thought. It is the collector in me – it dates from when I used to avidly
and comprehensively write down steam and diesel locomotive numbers.
There is a great satisfaction in completeness. For example I have virtually
everything available on CD that was composed by Jean Sibelius. I do
not need it; some of it I have listened to once and will not do so again.
That does not make me think any the less of the composer. It is just
the fact that some of what he wrote was not as good as some of his greater
works. The early Suite de Ballet is hardly to be compared to
the 7th Symphony!
So each of us needs to weigh the arguments for and
against ‘cycles’ in our own minds.
Unfortunately Danacord have not actually given us the
complete piano works of Prokofiev. For a start there is the obvious
lacuna of the transcriptions. There are some truly attractive works
in this genre. For example the three sets of pieces from the ballet
Cinderella and the Buxtehude Prelude and Fugue in D minor.
Fortunately there is a very good edition of these half-forgotten works
on Arte Nova with Lev Vinocour [74321 63636 2]. And then again there
is a whole catalogue of ‘juvenilia’ written between 1896 and the current
Op.1 of 1909. This is important, perhaps, at a time when the early works
of composers are being discovered; we only need to think of Benjamin
Britten and the unearthing of much of his ‘early horrors.’ It is surely
only a matter of time before these ‘lost’ works by Prokofiev are recorded.
Furthermore, a glance at the catalogue reveals a few omissions from
the ‘mature’ works as well - for example the shadowy Scherzo in A
minor of 1912. [vide Nestyev p67]
It is instructive to consider the compositional style
elements in Prokofiev's music. In an autobiographical note the composer
laid down five key pointers to his style.
- The Classical Style - Beethoven
- The Search for innovation - breaking into new territory.
- The Motor Rhythm - or perhaps the toccata element
- The Lyrical
- The Satirical or Grotesque or perhaps Diabolic.
All of these pointers are found in his music-sometimes
singly and sometimes in combinations of two or more. To give a few examples:
- The Suggestion Diabolique from the Op. 4 and the great Toccata
would certainly fall into Category 3 and perhaps Category 5. We find
various numbers of the Visions Fugitives as part of his ‘Search
for Innovation’ and also as expressions of pure ‘Lyricism’. The piano
sonatas would probably be seen as belonging to the first, the Classical
However all this is not hard and fast. It is up to
the listener to decide what are the relative weights of each piece.
And we must never let stylistic categorisation cloud pure enjoyment
of the sheer musicality of most of Prokofiev's piano works.
It is possible to identify a number of other traits
in Prokofiev’s music that will be useful in understanding his works.
The musical debate within his pieces is usually tight, succinct and
rarely rambles. In his later works there is often a lack of warm-hearted
sentiment. There is of course some warmth in all Prokofiev’s works,
however it tends to dissipate very quickly. Frank Howes has pointed
out that Prokofiev often makes his second subject of a sonata form ‘wistful
or pathetic.’ The climax of a movement is often reached in the development
section rather than the recapitulation.
It is fair to say that some of Prokofiev’s themes are
extremely naïve. Sometimes they are downright primitive and occasionally
child-like or childish. However it is in the development of these themes
and motifs that the composer comes to his fore. He is able to turn unpromising
themes into powerful statements of musical logic – rather in the manner
There are two listening strategies that can be adopted
when approaching the music of Sergei Prokofiev (or nearly any composer
for that matter) The first is to choose half a dozen of the critically
acclaimed masterpieces and the second is to look at the works
chronologically. Normally this allows the listener to see the development
of the composer’s style. However with Prokofiev this is not quite so
easy as with other composers. His music does not necessarily develop
from say, late-romantic to neo-classical through modernist-although
this may be the trend. Prokofiev can surprise us; he can choose to compose
what amounts to a lush Tchaikovskian waltz at the end of his career.
His Toccata written in 1912 prefigured much that was to occur
musically in the following 60 years both in his own works until 1953
and in the works of other composers to a much later date
No, the reason for reviewing and studying the music
chronologically is that we then are not in danger of missing out on
gems, simply because critics have not seen fit to include them in their
canon of worthy pieces. There is so much interesting, attractive and
compelling music scattered throughout the piano works of Prokofiev that
it would be a sin to miss out on it. Another good reason for this approach
is quite simple. The works are arranged on these discs in anything but
a chronological order. So there is the effort of constantly changing
CDs on the player. However I feel quite positive about this exercise.
There is always a danger that we put the CD on, start at track one and
just listen, then half listen and then switch off to whatever comes
next. Soon we find that we have had a recital of seemingly disparate
works. If the music is new to us, we find that movements and pieces
have blurred into one. We think the last movement of the 1st
Sonata was in fact the first movement of the 4th!
However, I will be generous and give a ‘required’ list
of Prokofiev’s Piano works. Those pieces that must be listened to if
the listener wishes to form a judgement on the composer’s abilities
to compose for the piano. These are as follows:-
Piano Sonata No.1
Piano Sonata No.5
Piano Sonata No.7 (if only one can be listened to!)
Piano Sonata No.8
This (subjective) list allows a broad sweep of understanding
– from the dalliance with the romantic world of Scriabin and Balakirev
to the full maturity of the wartime years. It allows the listeners to
explore some of the experimental pianism present in the two composite
However for the purpose of this review I will take
a chronological journey through these works beginning with a few early
works included on these CDs. I shall look in more or less detail at
each of the ensuing works.
Song Without Words
The little Song without Words was lost for many years
and turned up in the nineteen-eighties in Moscow. Marshev gives this
piece its first recording. It is believed to have been composed around
1904 at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. This is a lovely piece in a
style quite remote from most of Prokofiev’s catalogue. It is a part
of the largely undiscovered ‘juvenilia.’
Two Pieces for Children
The Two Pieces for Children is another example
of music from Prokofiev’s early composing career. They were written
in 1904/5 and once again have only recently come to light. They are
slight pieces that are both tuneful and quite enjoyable. I am pleased
that Danacord decided to give them here.
The 1st Piano Sonata in F minor. Op.1.
There is no doubt that the Sonata No.1 in F minor is
not to be regarded as being typical of the music of Prokofiev. It was
composed before he had found his distinctive voice. Yet we noticed in
our brief survey that the composer often made use of one of more different
styles in his work – one of which encompasses the Romantic style of
writing so beloved of an earlier generation of Russian composers. One
thinks immediately of Glazunov, Schumann and perhaps even Tchaikovsky
The work was written in 1909 when the composer was
only nineteen years old. There is no doubt, however, about the quality
of the piano writing. It is easy to understand having the conventional
grammar of the romantic era. There are no sharp dissonances, aggressive
chords or clashes to spoil the general feeling of tunefulness and conventional
rhythmic devices. This is excellent –already he can be seen as writing
in an animated and dazzling style, with some of the fingerprints that
were to become features of his later music.
Boris Asafyev, a fellow composer, wrote about this
work, "Prokofiev is speaking of the old, but in a new way, and
he expresses the new by scarcely imperceptible details, digressions
and effects…one’s ear immediately senses this ‘scarcely’ on one’s very
first acquaintance with the sonata."
This work was originally thought out as a three-movement
sonata. It derived from what was formerly the ‘2nd Sonata’
that was composed in 1907. However the composer laid the last two movements,
an Andante and Finale, aside. The remaining movement is a straightforward
The work was first performed in Moscow on 21st
February 1910. However it was not well received by the cognoscenti who
believed that it was too derivative.
Four Etudes Op.2
The Four Etudes Op. 2 date from Prokofiev's
student days at Sontsovka. At this time he was studying Medtner's Fairy
Tale Op.8 No.2 and a fugue by Mendelssohn. There is no doubt that
the young composer was writing music that exhibited his particular keyboard
skills. He was a brilliant and highly powerful pianist. These are extremely
virtuoso pieces that utilise many of the tricks of the pianist's trade
- octaves, chromatic figurations and double notes. These studies are
still in the fin-de-siècle romantic style of Rachmaninov
and Nicolai Medtner. However it is possible to see elements of Prokofiev's
unique contribution to music. Already these works are full of passion
and storminess. The first Etude makes use of polyrhythmic passages,
the second has lots of interesting key changes, the third is mysterious
and the final study is full of humour and sheer pyrotechnic display.
The composer Miaskovsky wrote, "in these beautiful Etudes we find now
strange fantasy, now gentle but healthy lyricism, now cutting irony,
now, finally, powerful impetuosity." They can only be described as exceedingly
complex and difficult pieces. Oleg Marshev plays them with all the cunning
that Prokofiev required. They may be untypical of the composer, but
they are late romantic and rather good.
Four Pieces Op.3; Four Pieces Op.4 & Ten Pieces
It is possible to consider these three works as one
section of this review.
When Prokofiev was studying at Sontsovka under the
instruction of Reinhold Gliere, it was customary for the young composer
to write what were later to be called and translated 'ditties.' These
were composed for various family occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.
They bore dedications such as 'To Aunt Tanyechka'. This form of musical
instruction became mandatory as Prokofiev progressed in his studies.
It was expected that he compose some dozen or so a year. Fortunately
all these works are bound into notebooks that have been preserved in
the archives in Moscow. Perhaps one day some adventurous record company
will choose a number of them to issue on disc. The writing of these
short pieces was a practice that Prokofiev maintained throughout most
of his career.
In 1907 he produced a number of these slight works
- no longer mere ditties but still in that spirit. They had picturesque
titles such as Snowflakes, Fairy Tale and Prayer.
However, in some of the titles we glimpse a trait of the composer that
was to develop as the years went by. For example we have, Diabolic
Suggestions, Despair, Reproach and Phantom.
Dark titles indeed and ones that the musical psychologist may well apply
themselves to with great profit!
Some of these minor works were polished and reworked.
They were issued as the Opus 3 & 4. He carefully chose these pieces
from the 'hidden' collection - those numbers he was afraid to show to
Glazunov and Liadov. These are interesting works full of complex piano
writing. The Opus 4 perhaps is the more interesting of the two sets.
Here we have four completely contrasting pieces, each one full of good
The Opus 12 represents another excursion into the territory
of miniatures. Once more they are student pieces. Half the ten pieces
were specifically written for this work in 1913. The remaining numbers
were salvaged from the old notebooks. Once again there is a variety
of styles visible in these short pieces. They are fundamentally neo-classical
in design and sound. However, this is not a cold, cerebral classicism,
but a vibrant, exciting attempt by the composer to ally his bravura
pianism to the accepted models of classical literature. Some of these
pieces use titles derived from the baroque suite - for example the lovely
Riguadon or the Gavotte. The programme notes point out
that there is a striking similarity between this small piece and the
music he used in Romeo and Juliet for the dance of the girls
under Juliet's balcony on her wedding day. But then there are some nineteenth
century titles – an interesting, if contrived Mazurka and the
thoughtful Legend. (This last piece was Prokofiev's favourite
of the set.)
The Toccata was composed in 1912 after hearing
the great example in C major by Schumann. It is a fine virtuoso piece
that is so obviously extremely difficult to play.
It is fair to say that the Prokofiev derives this entire
complex and difficult piece from some very simple material. It is as
if a poet were to write a page long poem based on just six words. This
is an example of the composer’s motor rhythms at their best. It is a
‘perpetuum mobile’. Here we find that rhythm has taken predominance
over melody. There is some very complex and fiendishly difficult pianistic
writing. Lots of double notes, skips and chromatic chords in contrary
motion. There is drive and aggression here. It is not surprising that
the composer’s image as the ‘Angry Young Man of Russia,’ was confirmed
in people's minds when they first heard this work. The concept of ‘toccata’
music was to be very important in much that he wrote for the theatre.
We need only think of the ‘fight’ music from Romeo and Juliet
to see how Prokofiev used these driving rhythms to reflect the riotous
action on the stage. The composer Miaskovsky described it as follows:
-"Not long ago S. Prokofiev composed a little thing that I am absolutely
mad about-a piano toccata. It is devilishly clever, biting, energetic
The 2nd Piano Sonata in D minor Op.14 (1912)
I believe that many critics exaggerate the differences
between the first and second sonatas. It is often presented as if there
is a huge gulf between the ‘modernistic’ later work and the derivative
romantic first. The Sonata No 2 is most certainly a mature work,
is larger and has four largely contrasting moments. However the romantic
feel is still present. Prokofiev, of course, explores other musical
and pianistic devices. We hear bitonality creeping in here. The first
movement has two contrasting tunes. The first is a theme typical of
the composer; full of hustle and bustle – of quite magical effect. However
there is a significant change when we arrive at the second subject.
The composer here is using classical piano writing style to produce
a quiet and pensive section. We are conscious of Haydn and even Beethoven
many times in this movement there is an exciting development section
building up to robust ‘pesante’ climax. The recapitulation leads us
back to calmer waters. The movement ends with a good coda.
The second movement is a straightforward Scherzo –
in the form of a march. This was a structure that Prokofiev used in
a number of his works. There is much difficult writing here – the pianist
having to bring out melodies from amongst lots of double notes. There
is a much quieter trio section.
The slow movement is highly perfumed and chromatic
music. It is very dense and dark. The colours of this are browns and
golds; a truly autumnal piece, full of tragedy and impending dooms.
This is great music. The last movement is full of life and abandon.
In some ways it could be described as being brash. Prokofiev makes a
masterstroke by echoing the lovely theme from the first movement –there
is a touch of Rachmaninov here – at the start of the development. The
excitement returns and more or less keeps up until the coda.
I regard this work as one of Prokofiev’s most satisfying
works – the balance between the romantic and the modernist being perfect.
Sarcasms Op. 17
Sarcasms was quite simply a search for a new
musical language. They were a definite reaction to the prevailing romanticism
of the previous century. However it must always be noted that Prokofiev
never fully escaped from this particular tradition.
There is no doubt that Sarcasms derives from
the same source as the Toccata Op.11.
This is all about the composer trying out various experiments.
It is an attempt to express raw emotions without using the language
of late romanticism. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was in a similar
These five short pieces could well be described as
being grotesque. Was the composer teasing his listeners? It is as if
he is trying to convince them that there is another musical language
apart from late-romanticism, and in so doing, perhaps he is making fun
The first movement Tempestoso has two sides to its
nature. Firstly there is an aggressive marcato, played détaché.
But against this are some softer passages.
The second movement, Allegro Rubato is somewhat impressionistic
or perhaps more like an improvisation (or ramble, if one is being sarcastic!).
Here we have almost plucked chords, and arpeggios breaking out all over
The third is bitonal. F-sharp minor for the right hand
is pitted against Bb minor on the left. Here we have an aggressive ostinato
and great chordal outbursts.
The fourth Sarcasm is marked 'Smanioso' - and
this proves to be weird in the best sense of the word. The whole piece
seems to be distorted out of shape. It is as if one is looking into
a mirror at the fairground. Nothing is as it should be. An interesting
The last movement needs as little explanation. There
is actually a programme for this based on a theme from Gogol. "Sometimes
we laugh maliciously at someone or something, but when we look closely,
we see how pitiful and wretched is the object of our laughter, and then
we begin to feel uncomfortable-the laughter rings in our ears, but now
someone else is laughing at us."
The music actually follows this programme - first of
all is the 'sarcastic' coarse laughter. But this changes to a quieter
and more disturbed mood. It is as if we can hear the distress. And then,
following the pattern of all good pieces, the jeering laughter returns.
These are dark pieces and perhaps do not present a
'nice' image of the composer. We feel that by the very title of the
work he is laughing at us. There is a Scriabinesque dalliance
with things beyond reason here - a dance of death.
Asafyev wrote - "The five Sarcasms are five of the
most caustic and penetrating expressions of the dark forces of life,
its evil, its poison."
Visions Fugitives Op.22
The Visions Fugitives were composed over a period three
years - between 1915 and 1917. These works have been likened to 'chippings
from a carpenter's bench' or perhaps entries in a diary. The shortest
of these twenty Visions is a mere 21 seconds and the longest is two
and half minutes. Yet again they could be seen as experiments in a musical
laboratory. There is a definite relationship between his work and the
earlier Sarcasms. These 'fragments' were written down and were then
available for future use. We are lucky that Prokofiev decided to publish
them as they are and did not consign them to a notebook.
There is an epigraph behind this piece - the words
of the poet Konstantin Balmont: - "In every fugitive vision I see worlds/Full
of the changing play of rainbow hues."
And this emphasis on change is vital to an understanding
of these pieces. There is such a wide diversity of style, mood and structure
to these pieces. They range in mood from happy to sad, from the dramatic
to the diabolic. Yet every so often we are aware of a deep tenderness.
The composer uses a whole range of subtle and not so subtle harmonic
devices. He does not balk at pulling out a slow waltz rhythm or using
motifs more akin to children's play songs.
The composer imagined that these twenty miniatures
would be listened to at a sitting but many pianists have excerpted them.
However, I feel that there is an internal balance to this work. Not
only does the composer juxtapose the lyrical numbers with those that
are dramatic and ferocious, there is also a formal balance only apparent
when the cycle is listened to as a whole. When the slightly longer than
average 'Lento' is complete, one gets a great sense of satisfaction.
The work could not be a bar longer. Oleg Marshev plays this work in
a way that emphasises the diversity and variety of these 'bagatelles.'
I think it is one of the most attractive things on this cycle of piano
Piano Sonata No.3 in A minor Op.28
The Third Sonata is another example of how Prokofiev
has mined the works of his student days. The work is subtitled "From
Old Notebooks." The original material was composed in 1907. However
it was largely rewritten in the present form in 1917. It seems to be
clear that what Prokofiev did was to cut and compress the existing material
until it fitted into this slightly unusual sonata form.
The opening of this highly concentrated single movement
work has been likened to Stephen Heller’s ‘La Chasse’ with its
‘hunting’ theme that is banged out with great enthusiasm. However, calmer
waters soon prevail and lead to the long development section. What characterises
this work is the vast range of pianistic styles that the player is called
on to reproduce. Moods seem to shift by the bar. In many ways this is
Prokofiev’s entire style condensed into one seven and half-minute work.
The opening material returns towards the end of the piece. But the composer
is not satisfied to recapitulate the ‘Moderato Semplice’ music, so he
creates a ‘quasi tromba’ variation that is built up into a triple forte
climax. Oleg Marshev plays this work with great skill, power and considerable
vigour. It needs a pianist who can build up the momentum from the very
first bar to the last. Miaskovsky wrote, "Its basic qualities are
infectious, captivating élan and fervent passion, through which
shines with great clarity the serene freshness of a young self asserting
Piano Sonata No.4. in C minor. Op.29 (1908 and 1917)
Once again the composer derived much of the material
of this work from early notebooks. The original sketches for this work
date back to 1908. It is written in three contrasting movements. It
is probably fair to say that it is the composer’s most characteristic
piano work up this time.
The first movement has the usual contrast of moods.
However the predominant feel is ominous and despondent. This mood is
not really lifted in the Andante although the melody of this movement
is attractive. The composer fills out this tune with a rich accompaniment.
The last movement is a good old-fashioned rondo which
is perhaps not quite worthy of the last two movements. It does not manage
to clear away the clouds of despair from the earlier movements.
From the pianist’s point of view this sonata is considerably
easier than some of the works that were to follow – the sixth sonata
for example. However the last movement is no pushover, even for a recitalist.
The entire work is quite romantic and is easily approachable by most
listeners. This is an enjoyable recording.
Tales of an Old Grandmother Op.31 & Four Pieces
These pieces were composed at the start of Prokofiev’s
voluntary exile outside post-revolutionary Russia. He had managed to
gain a permit to leave that country and he headed towards the United
States – as so many had done before him and were to do in the future.
Soon the composer was playing at recitals in New York. The publishers
began to clamour for some original music. The first results of this
were the Tales of an Old Grandmother Op.31 and the Four Pieces
Op.32. Soon Prokofiev was to be embroiled in contractual problems
over these pieces. He did not wish to commit himself to a ‘deal’ lasting
many years as he did not at that time imagine he was to be staying away
from his homeland for too long.
These are two relatively minor works in the Prokofiev
catalogue, yet they exhibit much that was best and effective in his
compositional style. Naturally they won popularity and were soon issued
on piano rolls. These works are written in what might be termed Prokofiev’s
‘neo-classical’ style. There is certainly a lot of interesting music
here. There is much ‘rhythmic grace, both dark-hued and sparkling harmonic
colours and charming melody’ in these pieces. Although composed in the
United States it is fair to say that they are more in the succession
of his earlier works composed in Russia.
Prokofiev himself wrote about the Grandmother Tales
–"Some recollections had become half erased from her memory; others
will never become erased."
The Tales of the Old Grandmother are all rather
attractive – sometime the harmonies become quite romantic. These are
definitely melodic pieces – however they have a darker side also.
In the Op.32 the Waltz is to be especially treasured
along with the ‘Hungarian’ gavotte; these two pieces are the finest
of the four.
Marshev plays these works with an added sense of mystery.
They are relatively straightforward movements quite within the gift
of the amateur. What Marshev brings is a touch of magic.
Little is written about the posthumously published
piece called ‘Dumka.’ It came to light in the ‘Sovietskaya Musika' as
late as 1967. The programme notes state that it is in the style of a
Ukrainian folk ballad. The word ‘Dumka’ is a Russian word meaning ‘mournful
song' or perhaps a lament. Of course it is made most famous in the Op.90
for piano and strings by Antonin Dvorak.
This is a meditative piece that well deserves to be
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major Op.38/135 (1923; rev.1952/3)
This Sonata was the first sonata to be composed using
original material that had not been derived form earlier ‘ditties’ or
student works. It was written in 1923 but was revised in 1953 as one
of the last tasks the composer did before his death. In the early twenties
Prokofiev was living in Paris. He was busy producing music for Diaghilev’s
ballets. At the same time his orchestral works were beginning to become
well known - he had gained a fine champion in the person of Serge Koussevitsky.
Musicologists differ as to what influences are apparent
in the fifth sonata. However, some see Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka
as lying behind some of this music and I believe that there is some
justification for this view. Paris was to have a major effect on Prokofiev’s
music. It was a time for paring down some of the ‘romantic’ pianistic
effects and for simplifying the harmonies and tightening the formal
process. This present work has lost some of the ‘Sturm and Drang’ of
many earlier works. Here we have a more serene work - at least in the
opening movement. However as the work progresses the composer introduces
a number of features to spoil the serenity. For example we are introduced
to dual tonality shared between the left and right hands. This gives
a sense of bitter sweet. Here and there we find touches of Schubert
and Schumann; it has been likened to parts of the Classical Symphony.
Once again there are contrasts – sometime the music is relatively simple
but then suddenly assumes a complexity that is bewildering.
The slow movement is an Andantino – yet it actually
a scherzo. We have ‘ostinato’ writing here which lends a touch of sinister
sarcasm to the work. It has been well described as mocking and has been
compared to the ‘Serenade of the Doll,’ by Debussy.
The last movement has a somewhat mechanical element.
Once again Prokofiev makes use of polytonal writing that gives this
movement harshness. There is a slightly sadder second subject which
does not tend to change the mood of the music from the ‘mechanically
derived' first theme. Frank Howes imagined that somehow this work had
a sense of mechanical toys enacting some kind of dramatic plot.
The new version, which is recorded here, was simplified
when the composer came to revise the work in 1953. It is given a separate
opus number, Op.35.
Things in Themselves Op.45
These two pieces derive from the time the composer
was living in Paris. This was his first major piano work since the coolly
received fifth piano sonata written some five years previously. There
is a definite romantic and quite lyrical feel to some of this music.
However, like much music written at this time it is actually quite experimental.
There seems to be a lack of formal principles. The music is full of
discovered ideas that are taken up, used and then forgotten. Nestyev
writes that it is music that is inspired by the philosopher Immanuel
Kant and the abstract categories of his idealist philosophy. I think,
perhaps, it is unfair to condemn these works as ‘abstract’ – to my ear
they are interesting, sometimes even overblown and certainly as good
as many of Prokofiev’s sonata movements. I believe that the first piece
is the superior of the two.
Two Sonatinas Op54
These two works can hardly be called well known. They
were composed in 1932 just before Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union.
They were a part of a series of works that were never to become popular
– even to this day. These include the 4th and 5th
Piano Concertos, the Sonata for two violins, the Symphonic
Song and the Cello Concerto. This was to be the start of
a very difficult period in the composer’s life. We have noted that he
ceased writing piano sonatas after the less than successful 5th
Sonata written in 1923. It was not until the start of the Second
World War that he was able to recommence this great cycle.
The programme notes suggest that these two Sonatinas
were perhaps ‘dry runs’ for the so-called ‘War’ Sonatas.
The first is written in E minor and the second in G
major. So they are ‘related’ to each other both tonally and structurally.
However these two Sonatinas were not well received
in the Soviet Union. The audiences did not seem to relate them to what
they remembered of the Prokofiev of old. They felt that they were "experimental"
and had a "cold unemotional character…interesting but somewhat
dry." I cannot agree with these sentiments. At least not the way
that they are recorded by Oleg Marshev.
Perhaps we can say that these works are more restrained
than the preceding sonatas.
However, they are very beautiful works that deserve
to be rehabilitated at the earliest possible time. The first sonatina
is, in my opinion, the finer of the two. Of course, unlike the Moscow
audiences of 1932 we are able to put these works into the context of
both Prokofiev’s music and European music in general. It is perhaps
important to realise that the composer has been influenced by the neo-classicism
of the inter-war French piano music.
Three Pieces Op.59.
Once again these pieces derive from the time just before
the composer left Paris for the Soviet Union. They comprise a work within
a work. The third piece is entitled Pastorale Sonatina in C.
The other two movements are Promenade and Landscape. I
am not sure whether the outdoor character of the first two movements
comes across. I think that they are somewhat abstract views of the ‘countryside.’
However they are quite charming and should certainly make a good recital
piece. The pianism is superb and is neatly played by Marshev. The short
Sonatina is somewhat more naïve than the preceding two numbers.
But this is not criticism. Prokofiev had an ability to write music that
was both technically difficult and also for the more moderate ability.
It is good how Marshev can make both types of music sound so effective.
It would be all too easy to not take the ‘easier’ pieces seriously.
Pensées (Thoughts) Op.62
These three considerable pieces are unique. They were
composed at a time when Prokofiev was coming under the jurisdiction
of the Soviet authorities, which were encouraging composers to adopt
the doctrine of social realism. This meant that Prokofiev found himself
being expected to compose film and ballet music that would be beneficial
and popular with the masses. It is from this period that we find the
great works like Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf,
Lieutenant Kijé and, of course, Alexander Nevsky.
However the Pensées are totally different
in form, harmony and style to these masterpieces. To my ear they are
full of sadness, gloom, foreboding and introspection. Even the programme
notes suggest that they ‘ramble.’ They are totally abstract in their
form. It is quite difficult to see the Prokofiev of old in these pieces.
Nestyev writes that "rhythmic resilience and clarity of thought
had vanished. Intense emotion and impulsive youthful vigour had given
way to dull rational speculation, and rich tone colour had faded into
Perhaps after nearly 70 years have elapsed it is easier
to see these works as being the masterpieces they actually are. No longer
do we expect a composer to always dish up the same type of music. We
now recognise melodies and harmonic patterns where none were readily
apparent. And of course pianists have had much time to digest what the
composer actually wanted in these pieces. So listening to Op.62 now
we can evaluate this music for what it is: an attempt by the composer
to speak his voice; to say something above the sheer populism of the
‘public’ pieces he was writing at the time.
Some of the best music on these discs.
Music for Children Op. 65
These pieces were written a year or so after the enigmatic
Pensées. He was spending time in the Soviet run ‘rest
home’ in Polenovo. The atmosphere here was certainly conducive to composing.
There could be no greater contrast in any two works by one composer!
These are delightful pieces, full of charm, melody and fun. It is interesting
to note that these numbers were composed whilst the composer was working
on the massive score of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps they acted
as a kind of antidote to the complexities of that great ballet. Of course
they are beautifully played by Oleg Marshev. And that is as it should
be. These are not complex; they were written for children to play. They
all have a minimum of technical difficulties. Yet each single piece
is like a jewel in a great crown. Even the titles enchant the ear. For
example, the Grasshoppers' Parade, Rain and Rainbow and
the Moonlit Meadows all conform to a child’s view of the world
and of poetry.
These pieces follow in a long line of music written
by great composers for children to perform. We need only think of Schumann
and Tchaikovsky to discover lots of attractive well written pieces for
up and coming pianists. All those who have struggled with their piano
grades will know many of the Russian works specially designed for little
fingers. Perhaps there was some good to come out of social realism –
first-rate pieces by first-rate composers for the young generation.
It was an encouragement to write music that was both easy and excellent.
It was not long before children in the whole of the Soviet Union were
busily practising these works by Prokofiev.
Sonatas No.6 in A major, Op.82, Sonata No.7 in Bb major
Op.83 & Sonata No.8 in Bb major (1940/42/44)
These three sonatas can be considered together. They
were all written between 1940 and 1944 and were conceived the year the
Second World War began. They are often called the War Sonatas.
They have successive opus numbers and were imagined as a trilogy by
the composer. It is fair to say that these three essays represent Prokofiev
at his most mature as a writer for the piano. They all require the greatest
virtuosity from the performer. They are not easy works to come to terms
with – either from the pianist’s point of view or very often from the
The Sixth Sonata is the largest of the cycle,
running to some twenty-seven minutes. It is in four movements. The first
opens with a stormy theme – but like so much of Prokofiev’s music this
soon gives way to calmer waters. The two contrasting themes form the
material of the development section and are combined in cunning ways.
It is often stated that the music of this opening movement lacks any
human warmth or compassion.
The two middle movements are rather strange. The second
is the scherzo with its ‘march like’ theme followed by a much more lyrical
and melodic ‘trio’. Here the composer makes extremely effective use
of very quiet staccato chords.
The third movement is a slow waltz in 9/8 time. This
is quite a romantic piece and comes as a massive contrast to the opening
The last movement is a rondo – full of interesting
tunes. There is a freshness about that is not destroyed even when the
composer makes references to the tempestuous opening movement.
The Seventh Sonata is a full ten minutes shorter
than the opus 82. The opening movement has been likened by Frank Howes
to a march composed by Philip Sousa, however I think this is really
only hyperbole. This music so typically Prokofievian that any superficial
references to such sources seem irrelevant. Actually it would be fairer
to say that this movement resembles the well-known march from "The
Love of Three Oranges." Edwin Evans wrote about this work,
"…the sonata started in a bitter mood and ended in a munitions
The slow movement opens in almost pastoral manner,
yet the mood is soon to change. Suddenly bells are tolling, perhaps
the enemy has gained a victory or perhaps there is death and destruction
all around. But then the calm is restored and all is well.
The finale is a showstopper; a ‘perpetuum mobile’ in
7/8 metre and paced at ‘Precipitato.’ Frank Howes quotes a contemporary
programme note from when the piece was first given in London. It had
stated that the last movement was like a stampede by a herd of giraffes.
He goes on to say that perhaps a herd of Centaurs or even the Gadarene
Swine may have been more appropriate. Whatever the metaphors we have
a fine conclusion to a great work. A conclusion that would serve as
in interesting introduction to Prokofiev’s cycle of pianoforte sonatas.
The Eighth Sonata unusually opens with quieter
more restrained music. In fact this work is perhaps one of Prokofiev’s
most lyrical works. There is not the aggressiveness of the sixth or
the severity of the seventh; we are certainly not aware of the drama
and tempestuousness of the sixth sonata. That is not to say of course
that there is not a deal of contrast. All Prokofiev’s works have this
feature - sometimes too much so. Great contrast in short movements does
not always lead to easy understanding of the musical plot. The second
subject is hardly a contrast to the restraint of the first. However,
the composer destroys this sense of ease in the development section
– here we find writing that is both aggressive and violent. So once
again the composer is able to provide a movement full of contrasts.
The second movement is quiet and restrained. It is
lyrical with the piano accompaniment of the tune becoming more and more
involved. Quite a relaxed movement from a generally turbulent set of
The last movement, a rondo, refers back to material
from the earlier movements. The work and the movement closes with an
exciting Allegro con Marcato.
Sonata No.9 in C. Op.103 (1947)
This work turns its back on the War Sonatas.
Here Prokofiev seems to making a new trajectory in his musical adventures.
We are back to the neoclassical environment. Yet there is also a back
to Wagner feel to much of this music. Some commentators are concerned
that the work is a mixture of styles. I am not so sure that this is
valid. To my ear nearly all of Prokofiev’s work inhabit the five sound
worlds I outlined above – to a greater or lesser degree. It is how they
are balanced that defines the nature of the work. From the technical
point of view this Sonata is less difficult than most of the previous
exercises in this form. We find here that Prokofiev is paring down his
compositional means. ‘Simplicity, economy of means’ are the order of
the day. This work is actually a complex juxtaposition of various elements.
We have naivety, happy tunes, songs and reflection. The composer uses
an interesting device to bring considerable unity to this work; he ends
each movement by referring to the next and of course the final coda
refers back to the opening theme of the first movement.
This sonata was composed in 1947 and is the last completed
sonata in the composer’s catalogue. Of course there were sketches for
a 10th Sonata and the intention of an 11th. The present
work was dedicated to the young Sviatoslav Richter who had just graduated
from the Moscow Conservatoire that year.
It is perhaps fair to say that although this work is
not a ‘great’ sonata it is certainly worthy of the composer and deserves
its place in the canon.
It can be useful to look at the performer's 'credentials'
for embarking on a massive enterprise such as the complete piano works
Oleg Marshev was born in Baku in the former Soviet
Union in 1961. After a preparatory education at the Gnesin School for
Highly Gifted Children in Moscow he studied with Mikhail Voskresensky
at the Moscow Conservatoire. The culmination of these studies was gaining,
in 1988, a Diploma with Honour in his Performance Doctorate.
From this point onwards his career was a succession
of awards and prizes. It is almost tedious to mention them all in a
review. However a list will give some insight into the high regard in
which this pianist is held:-
1st Prize in the 1989 'Pilyar Bayona' International
Piano Competition in Spain
1st Prize and Gold Medal at the AMSA World Piano Competition
in Cincinnati, 1991.
1st Prize at the Concoso Pianistico Internazionale
at Marsala in 1992.
The Primo Premio Assuluto at the Concoso Pianistico
Internazionale at Rome in 1992.
His career has led him to a vast number of engagements
in many countries throughout the world. It is superfluous to list them
all. However, he has done much in the recording studios for Danacord.
Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing the first four volumes of the
collected piano works of the forgotten pianist Emil Sauer. These were
a minor revelation - especially the Sonatas. He is at home with the
music of Rachmaninov - excellent recordings of the Corelli Variations
and the revised Second Piano Sonata are both well worth listening
to. Then there are the novel Paraphrases by Pavel Pabst and the
3rd and 4th Piano Concertos by Anton Rubinstein.
It is as if Oleg Marshev is both filling in a number of gaps in the
repertoire as well as establishing his own interpretations of the classics.
He is engaged in a massive recording contract of all concerti of Rachmaninov,
Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. He has had considerable success with his
series of Danish romantic piano concerti.
He well deserves success. The present set of CDs displays
his considerable talents in a stunning manner.
I have already suggested that no one cycle of piano
works can be definitive for all time. Some pianists will play one or
another work with more or less conviction. However, often it would mean
a lot of duplication if the listener were to build up his collection
of the 'best' version of any given work. And who is to say the 'best?'
Critics? And their view is always extremely subjective.
The Oleg Marshev set is ideal for someone wishing to
purchase a cycle that is performed in a convincing manner. Any defects
that may be present in these five CDs are overwhelmed by the talent
in the vast majority of the playing.
We must recognise that Marshev is in a direct line
of succession from the playing of Franz Liszt. The Marshev site explains
it thus: -"Marshev is a direct representative of the fifth generation
of Russian pianism since Liszt, through Alexander Siloti, Konstantin
Igumnov and Voskresensky's teacher Lev Oborin."
These works are all virtuosic in their own way. They
require both intensity and facility of technique. Even technically easy
pieces are usually difficult to bring off well. Every style of pianism
seems to be present. There are frankly classical works moving through
to sheer romanticism. Harmonic and rhythmic adventures; percussive and
staccato passages. There are extremes of tempi - from dead slow stop
to excessive speed. There are harmonic figurations and contrapuntal
devices that require supreme agility of hands and fingers - and mind!
Music that is innocent through to explorations of the frankly diabolic;
large complex structures and miniatures.
The need to explain the big picture is always set off
against the understanding of detail. The composer Nicolai Miaskovsky
wrote about the requirements for playing Prokofiev as follows, "In
order to convey the entire range of Prokofiev’s colors (sic), the performer
must possess a finished technique, indomitable temperament, profound
insight, and finally, the gift for sincere yet wholesome lyricism."
No pianist can encompass all these styles and extremities. Oleg Marshev
manages to engage most of them in a convincing, effective, satisfying
and basically stunning manner.