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Monday, May 04, 2009

Some Fine Prokofiev

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 [32:07]

Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, Op. 83 [19:20]

Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 [ 22:52]

Ayako Uehara (piano)

Recorded 11-13 October, 2007 in Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London.

EMI 5 17852 2 [74:37]

Much has been said about Prokofiev’s rebellious spirit and his overused monkier of enfant terrible has lost any significant meaning. Of course, by Soviet standards, he was a maverick indeed, not to mention someone seemingly fearless in taking risks. He composed some pretty dissonant stuff during a period when Stalin’s henchmen would haul subversive artists off in the middle of the night.

Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet in 1935-6. The piano transcriptions are his own, certainly meant for his own use. Anyone familiar with the orchestral score (of which Solti’s recording on Decca is superb as is Dutoit’s) will immediately appreciate the brilliant condensation of his powerful masterpiece into the sonic confines of the piano. More impressive is how idomatic the keyboard writing is, and how Ayako Uehara is able to bring out the subtle drama of the score with such finesse. This was a work that made its Leningrad producers nervous. The ballet was no fairy tail filled with dancing swans. The characters were very real, and Prokofiev finds their psychological complexities in this most descriptive music. Nothing of the pathos is lost in the transcription for piano, and Ms. Uehara explores the characters she portrays with great depth and understanding. This is no mere virtuoso display, but a welcome exploration of feelings and emotins.

The piano sonata of 1942 is a portrayal of the war time suffering and anxiety felt by all Russians. The work went on to win a Stalin Prize, which given its sometimes harsh dissonances and its overtly angular rhythms, comes a somewhat of a surprise perhaps. The music music have resonated with the party brass. Again, Ms. Uehara shows her abilty to bring out myriad colors and shadings. When called for, her performance is a technical tour de force. And yet, there is a lyrical beauty to her work, particularly in the second movement in which Prokofiev turns off his anger for a few minutes of inward reflection. Ms. Uehara is careful to choose a brisk but playable tempo in the finale, allowing Prokofiev’s alluring melodies to come out over the din of octave clatter.

The Visions Fugitives take their name from a poem by Konstantine Balmont. Brief and often wistful, these little episodes seldom last more than a minute. And yet they are diverse in mood. Prokofiev always had a gift for melody, and these little gems condense that ability in to a potent concentrate.

Ms. Uehara chooses a Yamaha instrument on which to perform, which is a bit unusual for big label commecial recordings. These pianos tend to be far more bright in the treble and thundery in the bass than do Steinways or Bösendorfers, a trait that can get in the way of sonic beauty, especially in aggressive music like much of what is presented here. To her credit, Ms. Uehara tames the trebly beast and brings out a wide array of tonal color. Here is a fine artist at work. One who has spent some time thinking through more than just the technical demands of them music. She has much to offer, and will hopefully offer us much more and soon.

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