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Bird’s Eye
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Pensées, Op. 62 No. 1 (1936) [12:17]
Fugitive Vision No. 1, Op 22 (1915) [1:22]
Alexander WUSTIN (b. 1948)

Lamento (1984) [2:58]
Three Songs from Toropets (1972) [5:27]
Ivan SOKOLOV (b. 1960)

In the Clouds [4:49]; Evening Birds [7:42]
Nikolaj KORNDORF (1947-2001)

Yarilo (1981) [25:23]
Ivan Sokolov (piano)
rec. August 2004, Moscow Radio House, Russia
MEGADISC MDC 7804 [63:19]

Here, in what appears to be a continuing trend with classical music, we have the "classical concept album" with all pieces hearkening to a central idea evoked by the title.

I hadn’t thought of the Pensées of Prokofiev before in the avian realm, but alongside its mates on this collection, it fits nicely. Immediately on the heels of Kate Bush’s Aerial, all of the works here evoke the idea of birds: flight, song, atmosphere and the environs or time of day when birdsong is most noted, such as sunrise and sunset. The acoustic for the entire disc is cold and sparse, which may turn some off initially, but it fits the tone of the music quite well.

Sokolov combines the known and the new in this well-thought-out and arranged disc of Russian piano music. Prokofiev’s works serve as bookends, beginning with the unfortunately not-often-heard Pensées. Prokofiev’s tone here is a definite change from that of his more snide and sarcastic years as ‘enfant terrible’ in Paris. Composed after his return to Soviet Russia and just as his troubles with the Stalin régime began, these pieces show meditation, spareness and melancholy. The work did not meet with success upon its publication although hindsight shows it a work of quality. Sokolov plays it with a thoughtful, winterlike tone.

The Wustin Lamento has an almost Satie-like character in its descant line, supported by quieter, sedate left hand chords that keep it anchored somehow to terra firma. Another comparison would be the — and again this adjective comes up — Musica Callada (Cold Music) of Mompou. Sometimes agitated, sometimes serene, the piece evokes the sky and birdsong in spite of its title.

The first self-penned piece on the disc, In the Clouds, evokes more a sense of the air and atmospherics — storms, wind and rain — rather than birds in its rapid arpeggios. The sustain pedal is depressed almost throughout the piece, and, as a surprise to many, doffs the hat to Henry Cowell with the soloist reaching into the piano while playing and strumming the strings. Not many pieces can carry this off without seeming to copy Cowell’s The Banshee, but this one works well, not only in context, but also on its own.

Korndorff’s Yarilo forms the centerpiece to this carefully arranged disc. By far the longest work, it evokes the time before sunrise until the sun has risen. Again, the music and the recording has a frostiness about it, the spare chords at the beginning indicating a quiet landscape just now barely visible to the eye. The work builds in complexity and breadth, showing not only the increase in light, but also the increased activity of the birds, with trills and songs hovering over the cold ground of the left hand. The piece, to my ears, seems to lose its focus toward the middle, with its ffff climax, but regains it with a very interesting segment filled with treated strings, harmonics, plucked strings, clock chimes and mechanical rattles. The overall effect is that of a gradual return to wakefulness as the sun rises, including some odd harmonic effects ostensibly done with the piano alone, but that sound like the use of stringed instruments as the piece fades to silence.

The Korndorff is followed by the longer of the Sokolov-penned pieces, Evening Birds. This continues the Henry Cowell effect of the strummed strings, as well as the widely separated left and right hand parts — the right holding the piece down, while the right flits through the cold air with the other feathered creatures that populate the piece. Here again is the sparseness of Satie, the nebulosity of Silvestrov. Halfway through the piece, yet another surprise — narration by the pianist of a poem by Zibilotsky entitled, fittingly, ‘The Nightingale’. The text is provided in Russian and English translation on the first page of the booklet. The soloist, having finished the poem, whistles along with the piano as the piece ends.

Wustin returns in this symmetrically arranged collection with Three Songs from Toropets, a collection of three short pieces for solo piano and fit well with Prokofiev’s three Pensées that open the disc. Short, sparse, and throughtful, these pieces lead seamlessly into the closing track, the first Fugitive Vision of Prokofiev. And with that enigmatic close, the disc ends.

Within the trend mentioned earlier of "concept" albums, this disc succeeds well. The playing is sensitive and concise, the cold tone at first seeming to be a shortcoming of the recording. While it leaves the piano to sound almost nasal, as the disc plays, this tonal quality is an obvious choice in light of the very carefully selected material. A cohesive and thought-provoking program.

David Blomenberg


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