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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No.6 in A major, Op.82 (1940)
Piano Sonata No.4 in C minor, Op.29 (1917)
Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op.75 (1937)
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Recorded at Teldec Studio, Berlin, 23-25 October 2003
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61255-2 [75’08]


Contrary to some critics, I do not find Lugansky’s Prokofiev playing too steely or aggressive, at least on the evidence of this excellent recital. Yes, it is forthright and direct, refreshingly so, and he does pick fairly swift tempi. But it displays fantasy and imagination which, allied to superb virtuosity, is thrilling to hear.

Taking the relatively un-familiar Fourth Sonata first is to illustrate this in spades. The Sonata is subtitled ‘From old notebooks’ and does indeed consist mainly of recycled material. But Prokofiev’s ingenuity with the themes, and the sonata form itself, makes for interesting listening. Lugansky obviously adheres to Prokofiev’s sostenuto marking in his relaxed treatment of the first movement, letting things unfold gradually. Thus, when the tension really does begin to rise (say at around 3’14) we feel the contrast in emotional temperature. The movement is full of subtly shaded nuances and lets Prokofiev’s unique melodic style properly shine through.

Similarly, he takes the composer’s serioso marking to heart in the second movement, where the sombre mood is helped along by the restrained use of the pedal. As the polyphonic texture grows ever more complex (particularly around 1’49) Lugansky expertly disentangles the lines with almost classical precision. I like his treatment of one of Prokofiev’s favourite figurations at 3’07 (I call it his ‘Moonlight Sonata’ device) and the whole movement emerges as one of the composer’s most lyrical inspirations. Even in the difficult toccata-like finale, where Lugansky shows us his real virtuoso stripes, he finds space for delicate contrast at 1’13, where he really does observe the marking of dolce e semplice.

He is up against much stiffer competition in the Sixth Sonata, the first of the so-called War Sonata trilogy. But even here I find the playing wholly convincing, with a real Russian ‘edge’ that has an authentic feel to it. He takes the famous opening theme (or, perhaps more accurately, motive) strongly and swiftly, but all the while one feels the underlying rhythm and structure. He may miss the element of sheer fantasy that informs my favourite reading, that of Ivo Pogorelich on DG (coupled, with typical idiosyncrasy, with Ravel’s Gaspard) but he is much better recorded, with a finer instrument. He misses none of the sarcasm of the third movement waltz, and I’ve never experienced a finale with more visceral excitement, even in Kissin’s superb RCA Carnegie Hall debut set. This must be the fastest on disc, but has phenomenal accuracy and articulation.

The Romeo and Juliet selection is far from a filler, and is in fact the longest item on the disc at 30 minutes. Even though one misses the variety of orchestration, these pieces are cunningly picked and work well on the piano. They fit Lugansky’s approach perfectly, whether it be the playfulness of the ‘Minuet’ or the grandiose thundering of the famous ‘Montagues and Capulets’. It is an interesting and worthwhile listen, and contains many of the elements found in Prokofiev’s most characteristic piano writing, not least these two sonatas.

The instrument is in excellent shape and the recording, though a tad close, captures everything with superb clarity and detail. You may have other Sixths, but playing of this quality is always worth hearing.

Tony Haywood

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