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Visions fugitives
Sergey PROKOIEV (1891-1953)
Visions fugitives Op. 22 (1915-17) [25:52]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Fairy Tale Op. 26/3 (1912) [2:46]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58 (1844) [32:29]
Anna Gourari (piano)
rec. October 2013, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
ECM NEW SERIES 2384 [61:18]

I first encountered the playing of Anna Gourari in her impressive ECM debut Canto Oscuro (see review). With her origins in Kazan, Tartarstan, and musical upbringing amidst the formidable Russian piano school you might expect forceful fireworks, but the reality is something far more desirable. As the promotional text promises, this recording “showcases the intense beauty of her sound,” and in this Prokofiev the luminosity of her playing really brings out the misterioso aspects in those pieces so marked. With the opening Lentamente we hear her allow the upper voice to lead against the lower, hitting those notes just in advance to create an effect of time wanting to stand still. The emphasis here and in many of these pieces is more on that of the ‘visions’ than the ‘fugitives’, allowing Prokofiev’s written-in brevity to take its natural course.

As outlined by Paul Griffiths in his booklet notes, the original Russian form of the title is mimolyotnosti, from a poem by Konstantin Balmont who wrote: “I do not know wisdom – leave that to others – I only turn fleeting things [mimolyotnosti] into verse.” Visions fugitives as it appears in the French translation in fact remains faithful to the visual elements in the original poem, in which the poet compares himself to a little cloud which shapes rainbows from the transient combining of moisture and light. Prokofiev’s music reflects these fleeting moments in pieces which often consist of just a page of music.

Anna Gourari doesn’t force the poetic side of the music in swifter pieces such as No. 4, Animato, but still makes us sit up and take note of Prokofiev’s lyricism. It’s not all percussive effects, and the sonorities in the piano and their reflections in the rich acoustic are allowed to develop and blossom with expressive content, even when we’re rolling down a steep hill with all the pots and pans flying around. This approach is arguably more Francophile and elegant than we have come to expect from this most Russian of composers, but these are relatively early works, and the influence of Debussy is being acknowledged here to the full.

There are numerous recordings of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, and impressive amongst these are the generally brisker and more spiky Roger Woodward on Celestial Harmonies (review) and Steven Osborne on Hyperion (review). The composer’s own incomplete recording on Naxos Historical (8.110670) forms an important reference, as do Sviatoslav Richter’s and the selections from Emil Gilels. None of these are as beautiful as Anna Gourari in this work, and even if at first you can only accept this as a sublime alternative, you may find it growing on you as your ears start nagging you to play it just once more.

Nikolai Medtner is considered the inventor of musical miniatures known as skazki, and while his Fairy Tale is used here as a sort of interval between the Prokofiev and the Chopin this is a piece with plenty of substance, at least early on, where dark moods and a tragic nostalgia are suggested.

Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata has been recorded too often to make any kind of definitive first choice, but it’s often my policy to orientate myself with a few reminders from other sources before reviewing familiar works. Evgeny Kissin on RCA (review) is a good comparison, perhaps as the barnstorming opposite to Anna Gourari. Kissin takes this work head-on, performing as if standing in for the orchestra as well as soloist in a grand concerto. This is no doubt ‘the real thing’ but not something you can digest easily on a day-to-day basis. Anna Gourari is rather less harum-scarum, her timings more expansive and her exploration of Chopin’s messages more prepared to seek nuances in softer dynamics. There is no shortage of volume or drama in her playing, but taken at a lower than fever-pitch level of expression in the outer movements the music has more time to show its inner workings.

It is always interesting how context affects the way we hear music, and with our ears still ringing with Prokofiev it is a surprise to find how ‘romantic’ his Visions fugitives can sound, and indeed how modern Chopin can also appear. The Scherzo of this sonata is a fleeting vision in its own right, Gourari not as fast as some, but at just over three minutes by no means a slouch. With plain-speaking pianism, the Largo is a narrative which talks directly to something pre-programmed in our souls, the sustained textures conjuring gently compelling imagery from some inner landscape. The Finale is the essence of Chopin, its turmoil also something which connects to the here and now. Beethovenian heroism is cited as a springboard for this piece, but our views on this can vary widely. If Kissin sees this heroism as the sight of a triumphant revolutionary waving a huge flag, then Gourari might show the more empathetic view of that same hero’s inner thoughts, with all their conflicts, contradictions and hidden sensitivities. As mentioned previously, there is no way of placing this performance in terms of an absolute ranking. Time will tell if it becomes acknowledged as a ‘classic’, but for now I can certainly say that I like it very much indeed.

This ECM is as usual a rich feast of superbly recorded piano in a resonant but not overly swampy setting which suits Anna Gourari’s playing perfectly. Booklet notes by Paul Griffiths are well-written and informative while also having a subjective element, and if you read German you have two for the price of one in an entirely different text by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich.

Dominy Clements