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Sergey Sergeyevich PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Works for Piano - 1908-1938
Sarcasms 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)
No 6 Valse [1:18]
No 12 Sur les prés la lune se promène [1:08]
Pensees 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. 33bis (1922) [1:31]
Visions Fugitives Op. 22 (1915-17) [24:01]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. 1991, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, Ultimo, Sidney
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 13292-2 [75:48]

Roger Woodward’s recordings have consistently delivered stunning repertoire at the highest level, and his Bach, Chopin and Debussy CDs are all highly desirable. His experiences in Russia resulted in landmark recordings of Shostakovich, and his exploration of less well-known composers is essential listening for anyone seeking to educate themselves beyond what has become the mainstream.
 
This particular recording was made in 1991 and marked Prokofiev’s centenary. Roger Woodward’s extensive booklet notes are drawn from his 2013 book Beyond Black and White from ABC Books of Sydney, and they reveal much about what makes this recording something a bit special. Woodward studied in Warsaw, hearing Sviatoslav Richter playing Prokofiev and striking up a friendship with Lina Prokofieva. Steeped in such an atmosphere, Woodward’s insights into this music are invaluable, and this very fine recording brings together works from Prokofiev’s early to middle periods.
 
Prokofiev’s piano sonatas are a central part of 20th century piano repertoire, and while these have tended to eclipse many of the smaller works in this programme the fearsome Sarcasms and the superb Visions Fugitives pop up fairly frequently. The Sarcasms are a powerful entry into this world. A quote from the booklet gives some clue as to the earthy tones which emerge from your loudspeakers as the Tempestuoso erupts: “According to Lina Prokofieva and Sviatoslav Richter, both Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich loathed nuanced piano playing …” This is not to deny the music its dynamic contrasts or often expressive core, but creates a directness of communication untroubled by a search for rarity of timbre. The third piece’s Allegro precipitato has machine like pile-driver chords like something out of Mossolov’s Iron Foundry, but Prokofiev is always shining shafts of light onto even the grimmest pictures, and the central section relents and allows us to soar above the clouds for a moment. Woodward’s playing allows for all of these changes of mood, and on a grander canvas than Boris Berman’s Chandos recording, volume 2 of the complete Prokofiev piano music from which on CHAN 8881 happens to contain both the Sarcasms and the Visions Fugitives. Berman is good of course, but Woodward sounds more Russian, and more convincingly chased by the demons which inspire.
 
The sheer zip and sense of fun in the Prelude Op. 12 No 7 is terrific in this recording, Prokofiev letting rip with the most incredibly banal of melodic ideas and transforming them into something radiant. This ray of sunshine is placed deliberately next to the shivers of the Suggestion Diabolique, which is a black and white caper B movie encapsulated into two and a half minute shocker. The Four Etudes are the earliest works here, but show no shortage of that precocious and always precarious Prokofiev genius. Oleg Marshev’s Prokofiev CD on Danacord DACOCD395 (see review) is excellent, but also shows the difference between a more rhapsodic performance and Woodward’s less romantic approach. Woodward is by no means deaf to the traditions echoed in this music, but manages to make it sound much less like Rachmaninov than Marshev. There is something in his boldness of colour, allowing the notes to speak for themselves, which strikes at the heart of Prokofiev’s gritty passions.
 
The later opus numbers of Musiques D’enfants, Pensées and the pieces Nocturne and Paysage are pretty much grouped together. These just precede 1935 and 1936 which were the years Prokofiev wrote Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf respectively, though while the style is unmistakable the moody Lento of Pensées for instance creates a world which defies the forging of anticipatory links. The latest piece in the programme is the Nocturne Op. 43bis No 2 which is another dark statement, and full of Prokofiev’s marvellous labyrinthine harmonic twists and turns. The occasionally uneven skipping and narrative feel of the Gavotta is unmistakeably Russian, and this sits nicely next to Paysage which gives the impression of developing those repeated notes. Carefully chosen programming puts the most famous piece here, the March from L’amour des trois oranges, which Woodward delivers with superb élan and a sense of brutal satire.
 
When it comes to the Visions Fugitives it is impossible not to have a listen to Sviatoslav Richter’s incomplete selection as they appear on the Philips ‘Authorised Recordings’ release from 1994, 438 627-2. Richter is incomparable, but you have to hand it to Woodward for being his own man in these pieces. No. 3 Allegretto for instance, becomes a quite a jaunty outing in his case, where Richter is rather more poetic and reserved. The spectacular Animato which follows is a firework in both pianists’ hands, Woodward driving on with a swifter tempo in the final bars and cutting 5 seconds from Richter’s timing. The remarkable Molto giocoso is one of those moments where live performance apparently sees even Richter on the ropes. Having started too fast, 11 seconds in you hear the tempo shift into a rather more uphill gear and the piece never really recovers. Woodward’s excellent vignette shows how it should be done, tempo consistent and lower sonorities shining through with a clarion sustain. When you listen to Prokofiev’s own 1935 recording there’s that shift in tempo again, just as with Richter, but the score shows no marking to indicate this is the way it should be done.
 
It’s excellent to have the complete Visions Fugitives here, though there is no real shortage of recordings even beyond complete surveys of Prokofiev’s piano music. It’s more interesting to return to the source however, and Prokofiev’s own recording of extracts from this set indeed makes for fascinating listening. Without going into inch by inch comparisons there are similarities, such as the restrained intensity both musicians give to XVIII Con una dolce lentezza, and differences, such as with XVI Dolente, where Woodward’s first theme is initially a strident declamation from which echoes grow and seem to stretch into infinity. Prokofiev is gentler in his opening of this piece, nursing the notes along with rubato and building more to the rolling waves of the second section. There are numerous overlaps in programme between the Naxos disc and Woodward’s, Prokofiev having also recorded the Paysages, the Gavotta and the Suggestion Diabolique,so you will probably want to have both if this repertoire has inspired you. The early recording is surprisingly good in terms of sound quality by the way.
 
Roger Woodward’s Prokofiev, Works for Piano 1908-1938 is a superb set of performances and an excellent recording, the Hamburg Steinway D sounding rich and brilliant in the large but not overwhelming Eugene Goossens Hall acoustic. Recorded in 1991, this is originally an ABC production and is released under license, though I’ve hunted and not been able to find evidence of another physical release from the period. It seems remarkable that this recording is not better known, but this superbly presented Celestial Harmonies disc will, I hope, rectify this state of affairs.
 
Dominy Clements

See also review by Steve Arloff (April 2013 Recording of the Month)  

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