Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Op. 54 [30:02]
Four Pieces Op. 4 [9:53]
Visions Fugitives Op. 22 [25:28]
Jerry Wong (piano)
rec. SUNY Purchase 6-8 June 2007; 10-11 January 2008
MSR CLASSICS MS 1357 [64:25]

Ugh! One so tires of the “bad boy” or “enfant terrible” clichés about Prokofiev, and the annotator of this recital jumps on this band-wagon in the first paragraph. Indeed, Prokofiev was an independent thinker. He did sneak some pretty aggressive compositions past his more conservative teachers. Yes, he was a pianist of formidable physical strength and his compositions reflect this trait. It is even true that he was a sarcastic nose-thumber at times. But in order truly to appreciate a composer who was perhaps the most prodigious and gifted musician since Mendelssohn, we must get past the triteness of naughtiness. We need to find the composer whose melodies can elicit tears, a man who could speak as eloquently in a forty second miniature as he could in a forty minute symphony.

The Eighth Piano Sonata dating from 1944 is a dark-hued, richly textured and reflective work. There is little doubt that Prokofiev was influenced both by the calamity of the Second World War and by the incessant scrutiny of the Soviet Composer’s Union, an organization that permitted no artistic freedom whatsoever. In 1939, Stalin’s secret police arrested, tortured and executed Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of Prokofiev’s closest friends. War broke out in the same year, and in this time of upheaval, the composer turned once again to his own instrument and composed three monumental sonatas. The eighth sonata is a brooding piece, generally lacking the toccata-style keyboard pyrotechnics that are often hallmarks of the composer’s piano works. Instead, adventuresome harmonic progressions, dark moods - in spite of its major key setting - and bold contrasts in volume mark this lengthy and expansive work.

Jerry Wong finds all of the pathos in this music. He finds just the right pace to keep this intense piece on the move and yet still supplies all of the tension for which such a serious work calls. One might have wished for a bit more clarity on occasion. There were a few noticeable blurry passages where an over-ripe pedal got in the way of clean articulation, but these were few, and did not detract from Mr. Wong’s overall command of the piece.

The Four Pieces, Op. 4 hail from Prokofiev’s student years, but there is no doubt that the composer was already possessed of strong ideas and a big streak of independence. These brief works show the composer as lyrical and aggressive, playful and serious, and there is no doubt as to his virtuosity as a pianist. Mr. Wong has the finger power for these bold little gems, but again, I was a bit disturbed by his tendency to mash down the pedal and let everything run together. Prokofiev was a master of counterpoint, and that gift gets disguised at times in Mr. Wong’s over-sustained performances.

The Visions Fugitives were inspired by this line from a poem by Konsantin Balmont (1867-1942): “In every fugitive vision I see worlds, full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” Prokofiev thus presents twenty fleeting works, some less than one minute in duration that are likely modeled on the Bagatelles of Beethoven or the character pieces of Schumann. Some are lyrical, some are aggressive and some are dreamy. It is in these little sketches that we find Mr. Wong at his best. His playing is limpid and energetic, and he elicits a wonderfully crystalline tone, particularly in the upper register of the piano.

This recital is worth the price of admission in particular for the Visions Fugitives. I rather prefer Frederic Chiu’s outstanding account of the sonata released some years ago on Harmonia Mundi. But don’t let a little blurry pedalling dissuade you from checking out this worthy and generally well played recital.

Kevin Sutton

A satisfying program of works spanning the whole of Prokofiev’s career. Jerry Wong is an expressive pianist with a good ear for color and contrast, even if he has a lead foot on the sostenuto pedal from time to time.