Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
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) [2:55]
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 and detailed.
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.
Vintage Vladimir; an hour of sheer delight.
Dan Morgan  

Vintage Vladimir; an hour of sheer delight.