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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Complete Piano Sonatas: Three Volumes
Joyce Hatto (piano)

Volume 1
Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1 (1907-09) [7.45]
Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 14 (1912) [18.08]
Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28 "From Old Notebooks" (1917) [7.49]
Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Op. 29 (1917) [16.41]
Sonata No. 5 in C major, Op. 38 (1923) [14.57]

Volume 2
Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 (1939-40) [26.50]
Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1939-42) [19.34]
Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, Op. 84 (1939-44) [31.46]

Volume 3
Sonata No. 9 in C major, Op. 103 (1947) [25.23]
Piano Sonatina Op.54 No.1 [10.10]
Piano Sonatina Op.54 No.2 [9.47]
Ten Pieces Op.12 (1906-1913) [23.43]

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This is an ambitious undertaking by an ambitious, questing musician. Joyce Hatto has already shown some forthright credentials in this repertoire. She has also shown independence and imagination in, say, her reading of the Third Concerto – very different to most others and a genuinely thought-provoking exercise in which Gallic influence and sensibility came very much to the fore. Here’s a pianist who takes nothing for granted, gets down to the practice studio and puts in unremitting hours.

The complete sonatas augmented by the Sonatinas and the Ten Pieces Op.12 represent a significant body of work. Time for an overview of Hatto’s approach and priorities. There’s nothing especially cushioning about the recorded sound; it lends an appropriate degree of astringency to this most astringent repertoire in a way that is (unwittingly or not) creatively apposite. Take the compact single-movement Third Sonata. Hatto opens relatively briskly and brightly but listen to the barbaric sections in which she preserves utter clarity and fearsome control, relaxing at 3.50 into lyric delineation and delicacy. I dug out Grigory Ginzburg’s live 1957 performance and have to say that I rather preferred Hatto’s greater sense of cumulative tension; she’s wittier, he’s more wilful and galvanic. Or, to take another example from the first of the three volumes from Concert Artist. Comparison is always elucidatory so look at the Fifth, Op.38 in a performance from that superb character Arthur Loesser. Loesser had a strong Gallic sensibility and he stresses the more genial aspects of the first movement; he’s warmer, more overtly expressive, keen to stress its classicism. Hatto meanwhile responds rather more to the demands of its implacable aloofness. Such distinctions are even more pronounced in the dissonance-fuelled second movement. Loesser, live, is much quicker, sounds a lot more abrasively ironic than does Hatto; she, however, brings out the voicings better whilst he tends to a certain confusion in lines. It’s Hatto who takes a cool, hard look at the measure of the sonata to gauge its emotional temperature and in the finale maintains rock security in terms of rhythm and tempo. She gathers in cumulative strength and it’s clear that the architecture of this troubling, perplexing work has been revealed with sovereign intelligence and understanding. Loesser is more quixotic and he brings out humour more explicitly (he was a famous wit) but I think the truer measure is probably Hatto’s.

In the Sixth one can do no better than compare Hatto with Richter, 1956, live. He plays the opening statements with brash, brusque mechanistic implacability. Hatto meanwhile brings out the march motif, is less remorseless, attending to the ascending and descending lines with typical acumen. But make no mistake; this lady has claws. There’s some fearsome playing here, frighteningly accurate, strongly accented and not going so far as to embrace all Richter’s sardonic majesty. For all that, she gets all the peremptory drama of this movement; no chance of being shortchanged. Listen for instance to the careful projection of both left and right hand melody lines in the Allegretto. She has a graceful and rather galant air with those little stabbing bass notes whereas Richter sees things differently, cultivating a somewhat cartoonish vision at a much quicker tempo. It’s certainly a distinction that extends to the slow waltz third movement which Richter takes briskly and sculpts, highlighting more, maybe to give it a more actively romantic feel. Whereas Hatto stays true to her concept of the work as a whole – slower, less obviously incursive. Hatto and Richter take pretty much the same approach to the finale – and she sounds perfectly aerated textually. Things are clear, decisive, and confident.

The Ninth Sonata was another work central to Richter’s Prokofiev repertoire. He gave the premiere in 1951 and we’re fortunate that recordings have survived. I’d cite a Moscow 1956 recital. He takes a direct view and unlike Hatto employs few rubati, tending to stress the urgent side of the Allegretto tempo marking. But Hatto’s cultivation of colour and clarity pays dividends and her more measured grandeur is an equally plausible solution to the problems posed by this sonata, not least its moments of almost expressionist complexity. She is again relatively measured in the second movement bringing out some melancholia at its heart whilst Richter emphasises the strepitoso indication and is more eruptive and explicit. At the same tempo as Richter, one feels that Hatto sees shadows in the slow movement; their direction is actually similar but there are local differences in depth of chording and tone colour, timbre – I also think Richter penetrates rather more fully to its mysterious heart but it’s a close run thing. Virtues persist in the finale – this is fine, direct playing from Hatto, shorn of artifice. She catches the quixotic pertness here through articulation and control – no gimmicks, just music making.

All of which leaves me little time to note the following; how measured and successful is the difficult opening movement of the Eighth and how well she imbues its big span, here sixteen and a half minutes, with affectionate complexity. Then there’s the assured flitting between elusive flirtatiousness and peremptory outbursts in the Allegro moderato of the Op.54 No.1 Sonatina and the painterly textures evoked in the Adagietto of the second Sonatina, full of couched feelings. The early Ten Pieces are characterised with élan and mordant humour. You’ll hear the recording depth changes somewhat between the earlier sessions of 1998 and these pieces, which were taped in 2004.

This is a comprehensively successful and accomplished set. It eschews false heroics and glamour to get nearer to the heart of these sinewy and difficult sonatas. Readers attuned to Hatto’s sensibility in the Russian repertoire will find these three discs rewarding listening. Fine, comprehensive notes as well from William Hedley.

Jonathan Woolf

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