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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, Op. 38 (1923) [14:50]
Pensées, Op. 62 (1933-1934) [13:34]
Musique pour enfants, Op. 65 (1935) [18:56]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 (1940) [28:04]
Yury Martynov (piano)
rec. 21-24 January 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/88.2 download from eclassical.com
Pdf booklet included
ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES ZZT346 [75:24]

It’s been my good fortune to hear the start of two very promising new Prokofiev sonata cycles, one from the veteran Peter Donohoe on Somm (review) and the other from a relative newcomer, Alexandra Silocea on Avie; like me, Byzantion was impressed by the latter’s traversal of Sonatas 1-5 (review). As for Donohoe, he recorded Nos. 6-8, the so-called ‘War Sonatas’, for Warner about 25 years ago. If the first instalment of his Somm project is anything to go by we’re in for a treat. A pianist who has swum into my ken recently is Denis Kozhukhin, whose account of Sonatas 6-8 is mandatory listening for all Prokofiev fans (Onyx 4111). He’s alive to the outward virtuosity of these works; happily, he’s just as well attuned to their inner ambiguities. The all-revealing Onyx recording is top notch.
 
The much-lauded Russian pianist Yury Martynov (b. 1969) has escaped my attention thus far, although Byzantion described his first CD of Liszt/Beethoven arrangements as ‘little short of sensational’ (review). As Martynov has now recorded three instalments in that series I think one can safely assume this Prokofiev collection won’t be his last. The couplings, the rarely heard Pensées (Thoughts) and the delightful Musique pour enfants (Music for Children), are a pleasant surprise; both were written in the years leading up to the composer’s return to the USSR in 1936.
 
The fifth sonata, composed at Ettal, in Bavaria, is reasonably well served on record, but Donohoe’s and Silocea’s accounts are among the finest of recent memory. Martynov, like Donohoe, opts for Op. 38 rather than the revised Op. 135; I much admire the latter’s ability to shape this music - to map its topography, as it were – and that’s something I miss in Martynov’s response to the first movement in particular. Yes it’s exciting, but staying with the geographical metaphor it’s also something of a featureless plain. That said, I do like his firm but gentle control of rhythms and the way he makes inner voices collide and cascade, to ear-pricking effect.
 
The Andante is just as lucid, helped in no small measure by a well-focused recording; there’s warmth too, so the runaway glitter of the Un poco allegretto is tethered by a taut, nicely resonant bass. Martynov is certainly proficient – he’s more than that in parts - but his playing is too generalised for my tastes. Both Donohoe and Silocea are more colourful and vibrant. I really look forward to hearing Kozhukhin in this one, for he lifts and animates these scores in a way that only a few pianists can manage.
 
On the surface Martynov’s reading of the three-part Pensées is attractive enough - he produces some gorgeous sonorities – but that counts for little when the performance is as literal, as po-faced, as this. I just don’t hear Prokofiev’s distinctive ‘voice’ anywhere, and that’s immensely frustrating. Listen to Boris Berman (Chandos CHAN 9069) and you’ll hear a wistful circularity, a gentle whimsy, that Martynov simply cannot emulate. In Martynov's hands these are very shallow cogitations indeed.
 
That persistent lack of imagination and flair doesn’t bode well for Martynov’s Music for Children, written a year before Peter and the Wolf. As with Kinderszenen, Schumann’s contribution to the genre, these are ‘easy pieces’ in name only; and like most miniatures they require a quick wit and lightness of touch. Alas, they get neither here. Morning is leaden - Promenade is nicely articulated though - and for all its delicacy Little Story doesn’t enchant as it should. The Tarantella is dispatched with cool efficiency, the Waltz is unsmiling and even the March of the Grasshoppers lacks charm. I could go on, but there’s little point; indeed, it would be hard to imagine a less magical or engaging set of performances than this.
 
Martynov rounds off with the sixth sonata, which happens to be one of the most satisfying things on Kozhukhin’s disc. Apart from superb articulation the latter makes the first movement teem with controlled energy and incident, whereas Martynov goes for broke with a big, splashy sound that misses the work’s subtle shifts and nuances. The recording is sized to match – the piano’s lower registers are powerfully rendered – and there’s no denying this is bravura pianism. Trouble is, it’s apt to pall as the ear searches in vain for the usual landmarks.
 
I’m more favourably disposed towards the Allegretto, whose staccatoed character is very well conveyed; however, Kozhukhin phrases that Romeo and Juliet tune with far more finesse. With Martynov the ensuing slow waltz is more opaque than most, and in that sense it’s very much in keeping with his overall view of the piece. The concluding rondo, with its echoes of the opening movement, can so easily seem literal and heavy handed; and so it is here, with little sense of the elusive subtext that makes for a more complex and rewarding performance.
 
I suspect one’s response to Martynov’s Prokofiev will depend a great deal on what one expects of this music. Lovers of sheer virtuosity and aural splendour won’t be disappointed, but those who seek the complex and elusive persona behind the notes will be. In mitigation the recording is excellent and André Lischke’s detailed liner-notes – in French and English - are well worth reading. All in all, a quality package.
 
There’s far more to these scores than this; for illumination look elsewhere.
 
Dan Morgan
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