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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto no.5 in G, op.55 [28:45]
Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major, op.83 [17:48]
Piano Sonata no.8 in B flat major, op.84 [29:46]
Visions Fugitives nos. 3, 6 and 9 [2:36]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Witold Rowicki
rec. dates and venues not specified. first issued: Concerto: Deutsche Grammophon, 1959; Sonata no.7: Melodiya, 1959; Sonata no.8: DG, 1961; Visions Fugitives: DG 1962
ALTO ALC 1230 [73:18]

Prokofiev’s 5th Concerto for piano is a curious work; in five quite short movements, it has the character of a suite or divertimento. Indeed, as James Murray’s notes tell us, it was originally going to be titled Music for Piano and Orchestra, before fellow composer Myaskovsky persuaded Prokofiev to re-name it. The restless first movement is followed by one of those puppet dances that feature in the second and third concertos - tick-tocking rhythms and jerky, wide-ranging piano writing. The central Toccata is done and dusted in under two minutes, giving way to the Larghetto, the longest - and to my mind finest - movement of the concerto. Like a lullaby at first, it has the most delicate scoring, though the central section becomes more troubled, with the full orchestra involved. The return of the opening, with gossamer-light tracery in the piano, is magical. The good-humoured and rumbustious Vivo rounds the concerto off.
Richter’s performance, issued first in 1959, is rightly regarded as a classic. He manages to find the exact balance between out and out pianism and lyrical beauty, and doesn’t succumb to the temptation of exaggeration, which many pianists can’t resist. Yet his playing is never dull, simply masterly.
The same goes for the two sonatas; these are two of the so-called ‘War Sonatas’, composed, along with the 6th Sonata op.82, in 1942-3, the darkest days of World War II. The booklet stresses the 7th Sonata’s connection with the battle of Stalingrad; this is perfectly fair, but, for me, seems rather stretching a point. Prokofiev’s wartime music falls into two categories; the frankly patriotic pieces such as the Symphonic March and The Year 1941 on the one hand, and the ‘absolute’ music, most of which is for various chamber combinations, on the other. For me, these sonatas belong firmly in the latter group.
The final item is a trio of the tiny piano pieces known as Visions Fugitives - Fleeting Visions would be a suitable translation, I suppose. These are from a live recording, as evidenced by the explosive sneeze from an audience member in the opening bars. They are miniature masterpieces, and emphasise the closeness between Prokofiev and the French composers Ravel and Debussy. Richter characterises them so sharply, yet throws them off disarmingly, underlining their delicious lack of pretension.
A wonderful disc, then; and the recordings, if dated, are perfectly adequate, allowing the superb musicianship of this great artist to shine through.
Gwyn Parry-Jones