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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Prokofiev for Two
Romeo and Juliet Op. 64 [35:22]
Hamlet Op. 77 [5:37]
Eugene Onegin Op. 71 [2:59]
The Queen of Spades Op. 70 [8:16]
Pushkin Waltz in C sharp minor Op. 120 [2.57]
War and Peace Op. 91 [4.55]
All works transcribed for two pianos by Sergei Babayan
Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan (pianos)
rec. 2017, Schloss Elmau, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 9854 [55.71]

Prokofiev is one of the composers with whom Martha Argerich has become most closely associated and those who have witnessed her performing the C Major Piano Concerto can only marvel at her technical facility and intense musicality. In this recording she is joined by American-Armenian pianist Sergei Babayan who is also a formidable Prokofiev interpreter. Babayan and his star pupil, Daniil Trifonov, memorably joined forces with Alexei Volodin and Valery Gergiev to perform all of Prokofiev’s piano concertos at the Proms in 2015.

This recording features Babayan’s two piano transcriptions from Romeo and Juliet together with selected pieces from Prokofiev’s incidental music, film scores and operas. In the Romeo and Juliet transcriptions, Babayan re-works some of the numbers which Prokofiev used in his own transcription for piano solo but he also transcribes other numbers from the ballet. All of the transcriptions are dedicated to Argerich. The pair first performed them at Argerich’s Lugano Festival and then went on to play them in many of the world’s leading concert venues.

The Romeo and Juliet transcriptions are framed by two movements which depict the death of Tybalt. Argerich and Babyan enter with hammered discords which are ominous portents of the events to come. We are catapulted immediately into the middle of the unfolding dramatic events. In the dance numbers, Argerich and Babayan produce a vivid range of symphonic sonorities while displaying an impressive dynamic range (some of the pianissimo playing is just about audible while remaining exceptionally clear). The Dance of the Knights conjures up a gallery of doom-laden grotesques while providing moments of intimacy in the quiet middle section. The Gavotte is played with delicious humour and an elfin lightness of touch. There is tight interplay between the two performers in the joyous and celebratory Folk Dance and I enjoyed the rhythmic buoyancy they brought to the music. In The Morning Serenade the performers weave a series of dreamy arabesques embroidered with celestial filigree.

The street scenes and portraits bring the characters and drama vividly to life. The flighty Juliet is an enchanting, vivacious character with a light spring in her step: one can only marvel at the delicacy which both performers bring to this music. The performers inject menace into the Quarrel which is full of demonic laughs and manic interjections. The lovers’ departure is the penultimate piece in this set and has all the ingredients of a grand Romantic nocturne. Argerich and Babayan conjure up the moonlit scene well and bring tenderness to the music before erupting into full blooded passion. The final piece in the set starts with the rambunctious, energised music of Mercutio. Argerich’s fans will enjoy some of the dazzling finger-work as the combustible Argentinian pianist and her Armenian partner set sparks flying. The piece ends with shattering rasping discords which hammer home the terrible nature of the dramatic events while at the same time bringing the set full circle.

The last part of the disc features transcriptions from some of Prokofiev’s lesser known pieces (those who are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin may be less familiar with the Prokofiev versions). The Ghost of Hamlet’s father starts at the bottom of the keyboard and both pianists succeed in conjuring up eerie atmospherics before confronting us with the existential terror of the ghost. The various dance movements are played with verve and panache while Pushkin’s Waltz features artfully decorous lines and blossoms beautifully. The performers highlight some sharp contrasts between the grandiose public and intimate sides of War and Peace in Andrei and Natasha’s Waltz. In the final piece from The Queen of Spades both performers manipulate an obsessive rhythmic idea and once again display an impressive dynamic range.

This disc features world-class playing by both performers and the Babayan transcriptions are destined to be taken up by other pianists and to be incorporated into the mainstream repertoire. Outstanding playing and bravo to both performers.

Robert Beattie



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