Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 (1937) [31:31]
Waltz, Op. 96 No. 1 from War and Peace (1941-1942) [4:57]
Two Pieces from The Love of Three Oranges, Op. 33ter (1922)
Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102 (1944) [19:59]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 1995, Gemeindesaal, Meggen, Lucerne, Switzerland
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 3605 [59:42]
Ashkenazy’s Prokofiev credentials are impeccable; his
Cleveland set of Cinderella - Decca 455 3492 - is among
the finest in the catalogue, and his conducting of the Philharmonia
at a London showing of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky
some years ago is a cherished memory. Then there’s the
concerto collection - Decca 473 2592 - with André Previn,
Charles Dutoit, Joshua Bell and Lyn Harrell; rich pickings indeed.
This Eloquence reissue is just as enticing, since it offers
the composer’s ballet and opera transcriptions in authoritative
performances and good, modern sound.
Reviewing this collection after hearing stellar young pianists
Nobuyuki Tsujii, Daniil Trifonov, H J Lim and Benjamin Grosvenor
I had to recalibrate my critical antennae. After prolonged exposure
to technical wizardry that - with the possible exception of
Tsujii - lacks commensurate feeling and finesse, I was relieved
to be in the presence of a pianist with nothing to prove. The
opening dance from Romeo and Juliet is a splendid piece,
played here with astonishing precision and rhythmic agility.
Dynamics are well judged, and the piano sound is both weighty
The best is yet to come; ‘The Street Awakens’ is
despatched with mercurial lightness and disarming ease, and
that glorious tune in ‘The Arrival of the Guests’
is made to sing most beautifully. As for the impetuous music
of ‘The Young Juliet’ it just seems to trip off
the keyboard, while the quieter moments positively glow with
warmth and tenderness. The combination of Prokofiev’s
colourful writing and Ashkenazy’s fine, intuitive playing
really does bring the ballet to life; it certainly prompted
me to revisit the Covent Garden production I enjoyed so much
last year (review).
There’s plenty of excitement too; the darkly imperious
‘Montagues and Capulets’ is delivered with terrific
weight, yet without masking the music’s central theme.
As for the melting benevolence of ‘Friar Laurence’
it’s so naturally shaped and phrased I simply had to listen
to it again - and again. Every nuance is superbly caught by
the Decca team, who also bring out the virility and sparkle
of ‘Mercutio’. One of the qualities I most admire
in Ashkenazy’s orchestralCinderella - evident here
as well - is his flair for rhythm; one might even think he’d
spent years in the pit reacting to the dancers on stage. He
also spins a most beguiling tale; ‘Romeo’s Farewell’
is infused with a blend of quiet dignity and piercing sadness.
This is music-making of considerable range and subtlety, delivered
by a seasoned musician attuned to the manifold delights of these
inventive pieces. The glittering, whirlsome waltz from War
and Peace is a little gem, and the march and scherzo from
The Love of Three Oranges contrast weight and athleticism.
Not in the same league as Romeo and Juliet perhaps, but
very enjoyable nonetheless. As for Cinderella, Valery
Gergiev’s recent Proms performance with the LSO elicited
surprising comments, not least that Prokofiev recycles his material
far too much. I beg to differ, and listening to Ashkenazy’s
illuminating rendition of the opening waltz I’m even more
enthralled by the sheer fertility and fun of this great score.
Cinderella is a fairy tale after all, and Prokofiev catches
that air of fantasy very well indeed. The quarrel brings out
his Puckish side, to which Ashkenazy responds with playing of
tremendous brio and bounce. As ever, there’s so much going
on in this music, and it’s easily heard. ‘Cinderella’s
Departure for the Ball’ is a barnstormer, and fully deserving
of an encore or two - cue the repeat button. Finally, the ‘Shawl
Dance’ and ‘Amoroso’ are reminders of Prokofiev’s
propensity for vivid colours and infectious rhythms, all naturally
rendered in that classic Decca sound.
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