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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 3, in A minor, Op. 28 [7:39]
Piano Sonata No. 8, in B-flat major, Op. 84 [26:10]
Piano Sonata No. 9, in C major, Op. 103 [21:13]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
rec. 2018, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
Reviewed in stereo
BIS BIS-2390 SACD [56:06]

I enjoyed this SACD immensely, even if I'm not convinced by every performance on it. London-born pianist Freddy Kempf has apparently been engaged in a rather slowly unfolding cycle of the Prokofiev sonatas for BIS. The first issue came out in 2003, containing Sonatas 2, 6 and 7, along with the Toccata and an Op. 2 étude. Kempf has also recorded the Piano Concertos 2 and 3 for BIS with Andrew Litton and the Bergen PO. His first disc of Prokofiev sonatas revealed the pianist's considerable insight and technical skills, resulting in exceptional performances of the works. Here on this new disc he again displays those same talents, leading one to believe he possesses a natural sense for Prokofiev's music.

The single-movement Third Sonata is a revelation here, as for once a pianist finds a different approach to this brief but most compelling early work. Kempf's use of rubato in the leaping melody just after the opening is subtly applied, finding more depth to the music than one hears in almost every other performance of the piece. (I have a couple of dozen or so performances of each Prokofiev sonata in my library.) Kempf's phrasing of the alternate lyrical theme (Moderato) is sensitive and utterly natural—I can't think of a pianist who plays it any better. The development section is full of drama and the rest of the sonata is played with more clarity and meaningful detail emerging than in most other renditions. Overall, his tempos tend to be in the moderate range, where so many other pianists choose to rush this work. Of course, there are other excellent versions by Glemser (Naxos), Raekallio (Ondine), and Bronfman (Sony), but I believe only Gary Graffman on his 1963 Columbia recording, coupled with the Second Sonata and some Rachmaninov works, is as compelling as Kempf, but for different reasons. I'll give the edge now to Kempf, not least because the BIS sound reproduction is its usual state-of-the-art quality.

The four-movement Ninth Sonata, Prokofiev's last completed one, closes out this disc. Musicologists have pointed out the work's unusual form—some calling it a perfect form. The first three movements end by heralding a theme from the next, and the finale by recalling the first movement main theme. Thus, the sonata can be viewed as cyclical, as having no beginning or end. It is a gentle, reflective work that features many very attractive themes, lots of humour and playfulness, and yet a valedictory sense too, as if Prokofiev is signing off. Kempf understands all this, phrasing the first and third movement lyrical themes with seemingly perfect dynamics and a keen sense for their emotional demeanour. He enlivens the second movement, with his typically well-judged dynamics and fine sense for accenting. The finale also has a more animated character, Kempf fully capturing the mixture of emotions in this colourful movement, from its joy and frivolity to its gentle sadness in recalling the first movement theme. This is another excellent performance, this time with tempos slightly on the brisk side. Other pianists have delivered fine accounts of the Ninth, including Richter (various labels), Trull (Sorel Classics) and Boris Berman (Chandos). Kempf is easily among the best here.

Perhaps Prokofiev's greatest piano sonata is the Eighth, the third of the so-called “War Sonatas.” Once again, Kempf plays brilliantly, but here he goes out on a limb that may not be so sturdy. His first movement (Andante dolce) is played considerably faster than any other pianist on the more than twenty-five or so versions that I have and the several more that I've heard. An average performance of this movement is in the fourteen to sixteen minute range, compared with Kempf's fleet 11:35. Barbara Nissman, who also plays it briskly on Newport Classic (later reissued on Pierian), is the only other pianist who is remotely close and she clocks in at 13:04! Having written all this, I must concede that the stopwatch doesn't tell the whole story. The more I listened to Kempf play this movement, the more I grew accustomed to his tempos and he makes a strong case for his approach with his usual fine instincts for phrasing and clarity. Still, I would prefer a more measured, sensitive manner here.

The brief lyrical second movement is well played, as is the finale, which is quite difficult. But Kempf meets every technical challenge here, where many other pianists wilt, especially under the barrage of those rapid-fire upper register notes in the closing moments. Anyway, while I quibble over Kempf's brisk manner in the opening movement, I must confess he makes you hear the music in a new way and some might actually favour this approach. In the end, I must say I wouldn't want to be without his performance, and if I don't place his Eighth at the top of my list, I find it intriguing still. Richter (various labels), Glemser (Naxos), Giltburg (Orchid Classics) and Smirnova (Paladino Music) come to mind as first choices here.

As suggested, the sound reproduction on this BIS SACD is excellent and Andrew Huth's album notes are informative. As for my advice, despite my reservations about the Eighth, it is still a persuasive performance in its own way, and the other two sonatas, especially the Third, are played exceptionally well, making this a most attractive issue.

Robert Cummings

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