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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Works for Piano: 1908-1938
Sarcasmes Op.17 (1912-14) [9:23]
Prelude Op.12 No.7 (1906-13) [2:12]
Suggestion Diabolique Op.4 No.4 (1910-12) [2:32]
Four Etudes Op.2 (1909) [10:24]
Musiques d’enfants Op.65 (1935) [2:26]
Pensées Op.62 (1933/34) [13:33]
Nocturne Op.43bis No.2 (1938) [4:56]
Gavotta Op.32 No.3 (1918) [1:30]
Paysage Op.59 No.2 (1933/34) [2:19]
March from L’amour des trois oranges Op.33 bis (1922) [1:31]
Visions Fugitives Op.22 (1915-17) [24:01]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. 1991, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 13292-2 [75:48]

Pianist Roger Woodward calls Prokofiev “one of the greatest musical iconoclasts in Russian musical history” and with good reason. While composers such as Rachmaninov, Medtner, Myaskovsky and Kabalevsky continued writing music in the nineteenth century tradition, Prokofiev, who was only nine years old at the dawn of the new century was determined to write music that was new and different and ‘of the century’. His music is daring, exciting, at times furious, and contemporary audiences must have been shocked and baffled by what they heard.
 
The very first pieces on this disc, his Sarcasmes that date from 1912-14 are full of brash almost dissonant music requiring something close to a pounding of the piano keys. It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t or couldn’t write gentle music. Sandwiched between the Sarcasmes and Suggestion Diabolique, another piece that truly deserves its title, is his Prelude Op.12 No.7. This contains the most exquisitely beautiful and dreamlike sounds you could wish for. The first of the Four Etudes Op.2 from 1909 once again shows his liking for music that sounds angry, the kind by which an evil giant from a children’s film might be represented. This is not to say that such pieces are not enjoyable; on the contrary they are very appealing and cause both excitement, and wonder at the pianist’s ability to have their hands rush up and down the keyboard in demented fashion. Roger Woodward describes these as being “characterised by abrasive, rampaging sonorities”. Prokofiev even went to extent of giving different time signatures to each hand. That he was able to play them in public shows that he was an extremely talented pianist who did not demand anything from anyone that he couldn’t manage himself.
 
After the etudes come two of his pieces for children which are truly delightful. Written in 1935 they were in response to a great demand for children’s music. He is quoted in the notes as explaining that it was at that time that he set about writing Peter and the Wolf. It’s a piece that he completed within a week. He took another week to orchestrate it; a staggering achievement but a measure of this incredible genius of a composer.
 
His Pensées show his reflective side in these gentle dreamy little vignettes. The last of these is the longest piece on the disc at just under seven minutes showing how economical a composer he was. He could create a whole world of ideas and expressions within a remarkably short amount of time. It is interesting to read in the notes that he considered the second of these Pensées “one of the best things I have ever written”. I wonder what you will think as I can’t hear anything in it that would cause such a reaction. That’s undoubtedly down to an inability on my part or maybe it’s simply down to “what turns you on”. Continuing with more calm and beautiful sounds we come to his Nocturne Op.43bis No.2 a wonderful evocation of night-time. This is followed by a charming Gavotta from 1918 and a Paysage from 1933-34. Both of these bear Prokofiev’s unmistakable signature throughout their brief lengths. The March from L’amour des trois oranges is so well known but never fails to bring a smile to my face.
 
Then we come to the 20 pieces that form his Visions Fugitives Op.22 from 1915-17. This sequence constitutes a third of the entire playing time of the disc. It is fascinating to read Roger Woodward’s reactions when he first came upon them at the age of 14 in 1957. He was shown them by his teacher Alexander Sverjensky and the young pianist fall “head over heels in love with this composer”. It is also just as fascinating to read of the reactions to that which good Russian friends of his had. These friends were “steeped in the golden age of Tchaikovsky and Pushkin” who were dubious about his obvious enthusiasm. Woodward explains that these miniatures were good preparation for “the wide range of more complex textures that were constantly transcribed throughout the middle and late periods”. Woodward likens the set to the movements of a kaleidoscope which include “passing references to Schönberg, Debussy, Stravinsky and Reger” - such a telling description of these wondrous little works. Woodward quotes Prokofiev himself in an explanation that part of the tiny penultimate piece of the set was based on fleeting glimpses of the fighting in the streets during the revolution of 1917. He often caught sight of the fighting from the security of a corner of a building, thus a true ‘vision fugitive’.
 
This disc only helps confirm the genius of Prokofiev, a man who was so afflicted by that particular feeling of nostalgia that émigré Russians experience that, despite all the evidence, he felt compelled to return to the Soviet Union. That decision was difficult and his wife resisted but lost the battle to restrain him. As she had no doubt feared, like many others he had a hard time ploughing his own musical furrow. To his credit he, again like many others, doggedly stuck at it. What brilliant creations his time in the USSR led to and the world continues to enjoy them today.
 
I first came upon Roger Woodward with the first ever available recordings of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues that he made for RCA in 1975. I was bowled over by his masterly playing but haven’t really come across him much since. Checking his discography there doesn’t seem to be a huge number of recordings out there. It is a shame however, since his playing here is just breathtaking and one could never tire of hearing this disc. His booklet notes are equally excellent and help to bring Prokofiev well and truly into focus as man as well as musician.
 
This is a disc that any Prokofiev lover will want to own. I hope there will be more because though Woodward writes that Prokofiev “struggled with composition” he wrote some of the twentieth century’s most enduring works.
 
Steve Arloff 


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