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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102 [25:26]
Piano Sonata No. 6, in A major, Op. 82 [31:30]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1 [8:14]
Four Etudes, Op. 2 [11:31]
Suggestion diabolique, Op. 4, No. 4 [2:54]
Stefania Argentieri (piano)
rec. 2019, Teastro Giuseppe Curci, Barletta, Italy
Reviewed from download, in lossless WAV format from Naxos
Russian Piano Music – Volume 14
DIVINE ART DDA25156 [79:39]

When listeners think of Prokofiev's piano music a few still mistakenly associate him only with a brash, motoric and sardonic style. However, most now are aware he could also be lyrical and passionate and even child-like, often in the same work, sometimes in the same movement of a work. He was multi-faceted, probably one of the reasons he wrote music in virtually every major genre, from stage works to symphonies, from orchestral suites and concertos to film and choral music, and from solo instrumental and chamber music to song and children's works. With this recording we see many sides of Prokofiev, and fortunately so does young Stefania Argentieri, who is able to adjust her interpretive approach to capture these varied aspects quite effectively most of the time.

First, a brief note about her. After extensive studies in several prominent Italian music conservatories and first prize victories in a string of competitions in Italy, Ms. Argentieri went on to capture the International Award Gold Medal Maison Des Artistes in Rome. She has concertized throughout the United States and Europe and teaches piano in her native Italy at both the Umberto Giordano Conservatory of Music, Foggia, and at the Tito Schipa Music Conservatory, Lecce. This is her debut recording.

Like most of Prokofiev's transcriptions, the Op. 102 pieces divulge the more lyrical and tuneful side of the composer. Yes, “lyrical” and “tuneful”, but not necessarily bright and happy as evidenced by the dark-tinged waltzes, Nos. 1, Cinderella and the Prince, and 4, Cinderella Goes to the Ball. Here, Ms. Argentieri points up their ominous aspects with slower tempos than usual (especially in No. 1) and with her detailed style of playing, where textures are vivid, notably in harmonic bass lines. Yet, her expansive tempo in the first piece may seem to impart an overly analytical manner to her playing, though she never loses her focus or lets the music sag. Her best performances come in Nos. 5, Pas de chale, and 6, Amoroso. She catches the wit and playfulness of the former piece, enacting its sense of mischievous laughter most effectively, and she fully captures the melting lyricism of the latter piece with great attention to detail, the running, swirling notes in the left hand having a gorgeous sense of flow to underpin the beautifully phrased love theme. Again, in both pieces she employs slow tempos, but makes them work quite nicely.

To stay on the lyrical side for the moment, let me turn to her account of the Op. 1 Sonata, a very early piece that is a rare instance of Prokofiev showing the influence of Rachmaninov. Here the pianist delivers a big-toned bold account of this single movement work, imparting both a lush and fiery manner to its lyricism. Again, detail emerges with clarity, and main and secondary lines are well balanced. The alternate theme is especially well phrased, sounding as resplendent here as in any performance I know. This eight-minute piece has rarely sounded as vital and beautifully played as here.

In the Op. 2 Four Etudes and Op. 4 Suggestion Diabolique Argentieri is also quite fine, though I think her clarity of detail can be too much of a good thing sometimes. For example, in Op. 2, No. 1, her big tone and somewhat restrained tempo hold back the excitement this piece needs to fully succeed. Thus, the performance is effective in certain respects, but could have more drive, more of a sense of abandon. In Nos. 2 and 3 she is quite convincing, the latter piece one of the most difficult in the repertory, though it doesn't sound that way. Evgeny Kissin said of it: “Prokofiev presents pianistic difficulties that Liszt himself had not thought of...” It seems not to challenge Ms. Argentieri's technique, however, as her performance is facile and quite colorful. The jazzy No. 4 is full of energy here and while the famous Suggestion Diabolique sounds appropriately threatening and ominous, again a somewhat faster tempo would add even more excitement.

The most important work here is the great Sixth Sonata, the first of the so-called “War Sonatas.” Like Nos. 7 and 8, it is full of symbolism and profound meaning. Not surprisingly it is a complex and dramatic work, whose opening four-note motto quickly evolves into a vehement rhythmic theme that at once sounds defiant and heroic. Argentieri plays it at about the same measured tempo of Cliburn (RCA) and Richter (various labels), though not with the latter's bluntness but more with Cliburn's grandeur. Thus, she imparts a bigness to the theme while giving it a springy, elastic quality as well. She gives a somewhat serene, thoughtful account of the lyrical alternate theme but points up the agitation it gradually conjures with subtle use of dynamics and accenting. The development section builds nicely and reaches a grand climax, while the ensuing recapitulation is very well played.

Her second movement, once again, features a slower tempo than is usual, like the Cliburn and Trull (Sorel Classics) versions. Ultimately, despite fine phrasing throughout, Argentieri is not quite as effective as the best of the competition here. The third movement waltz is gorgeous in her hands, even if the tempo could be just a little more animated. That said, much significant detail emerges, and notes are caressed lovingly to produce both great passion and a sense of regret, in the end yielding a most convincing account of this emotionally tortured music. Once more, you notice the clarity of lines in the finale, and in the propulsive third and fourth themes Argentieri attacks the music with a big tone and sense of drive. The middle section is thoughtfully played and she delivers the movement's latter half with her usual clear textures and brawny tone. The coda comes on threateningly and powerfully and the final downward slide of chords (which is a veiled version of the first movement motto) is played most convincingly, as rarely occurs in other recordings. This, along with the Cliburn and Richter accounts, is as fine a rendering of this sonata as I've heard in the twenty-five or so recordings of it that I possess. Kudos to Ms. Argentieri.

The sound reproduction on this recording is excellent, the piano sound particularly rich and detailed. I already spoke of the competition in the Sixth, but as for the less popular First Sonata, it's still plentiful largely because of the many cycles of the sonatas. I would say Argentieri and Natalia Trull are as compelling in the First as any others you'll find. In the Cinderella pieces Boris Berman on Chandos is very good, as is Lev Vinocur on Arte Nova. Berman is probably more refined than Argentieri, even if he can be a little too straightforward at times. In the Four Etudes and Suggestion Diabolique you can find better individual performances, but collectively Argentieri's are fully competitive. At 79:39, this recording is a real bargain showcasing a new talent who has much to say in Prokofiev's brilliant music. Her Sixth is particular is outstanding.

Robert Cummings






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