Much has been said about Prokofiev’s rebellious
spirit and his overused moniker of enfant terrible has
lost any significant meaning. By Soviet standards, he was
a maverick indeed, not to mention someone seemingly fearless
in taking risks. He composed some pretty dissonant stuff during
a period when Stalin’s henchmen would haul subversive artists
off in the middle of the night.
Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet in
1935-6. The piano transcriptions are his own, certainly meant
for his own use. Anyone familiar with the orchestral score -
of which Solti’s recording on Decca is superb as is Dutoit’s
- will immediately appreciate the brilliant condensation of
his powerful masterpiece into the sonic confines of the piano.
More impressive is how idiomatic the keyboard writing is, and
how Ayako Uehara is able to bring out the subtle drama of the
score with such finesse. This was a work that made its Leningrad
producers nervous. The ballet was no fairy-tale filled with
dancing swans. The characters were very real, and Prokofiev
finds their psychological complexities in this most descriptive
music. Nothing of the pathos is lost in the transcription for
piano, and Ms. Uehara explores the characters she portrays with
great depth and understanding. This is no mere virtuoso display,
but a welcome exploration of feelings and emotions.
The Piano Sonata of 1942 is a portrayal of the
war-time suffering and anxiety felt by all Russians. The work
went on to win a Stalin Prize, which given its sometimes harsh
dissonances and its overtly angular rhythms, comes as somewhat
of a surprise perhaps. The music must have resonated with the
party brass. Again, Ms. Uehara shows her ability to bring out
myriad colors and shadings. When called for, her performance
is a technical tour de force. And yet, there is a lyrical
beauty to her work, particularly in the second movement in which
Prokofiev turns off his anger for a few minutes of inward reflection.
Ms. Uehara is careful to choose a brisk but playable tempo in
the finale, allowing Prokofiev’s alluring melodies to come out
over the din of octave clatter.
The Visions Fugitives take their name
from a poem by Konstantin Balmont. Brief and often wistful,
these little episodes seldom last more than a minute. And yet
they are diverse in mood. Prokofiev always had a gift for melody,
and these little gems condense that ability into a potent concentrate.
Ms. Uehara chooses a Yamaha instrument on which
to perform, which is a bit unusual for big label commercial
recordings. These pianos tend to be far more bright in the treble
and thundery in the bass than do Steinways or Bösendorfers,
a trait that can get in the way of sonic beauty, especially
in aggressive music like much of what is presented here. To
her credit, Ms. Uehara tames the trebly beast and brings out
a wide array of tonal color. Here is a fine artist at work.
One who has spent some time thinking through more than just
the technical demands of the music. She has much to offer, and
will, I hope, offer us much more and soon.