Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

ENDNOTES, February 2015

In this edition: Clare Hammond records for BIS * Somm issues Sonatas by Prokofiev * Céleste series – Concerti Armonici by Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer.

With many triumphant performances at Kings Place, the Wigmore Hall, and at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival, pianist Clare Hammond is emerging as an influential, original musical force – not least because of her advocacy of contemporary music and neglected repertoire, such as the music of Andrzej Panufnik, and – in a new recording for the Swedish BIS label – six études by the South Korean composer, Unsuk Chin (born 1961).

Clare Hammond’s playing and technique seem so clear, methodical, unhurried, unforced, that to listen to her work – even in the “difficult” circumstances of modern music, with its fiendish torrent of atonality – is a pleasure; because every note is played with such thought and feeling, and attention to detail, and is made to count, especially in the well-chosen acoustic of Potton Hall, Suffolk, the venue chosen by the superb BIS sound engineers. She begins her recital on the disc (catalogue details: BIS 2004) with the late-romantic music of Sergei Lyapunov – three of his 12 Études d’Exécution Transcendante – one written in 1897, the others from 1900. If Lyapunov is unfamiliar to many English listeners, then it might be helpful to think of the works of Rachmaninov – but with a lighter, more folk-like feel; or perhaps as a Russian version of Liszt or Chopin.

In the CD booklet, which is (refreshingly) written by the recording artist (rather than by an onlooker), we discover that Lyapunov was an adherent of the New Russian School, and “in 1893 was commissioned by the Imperial Geographical Society, together with [fellow composer] Balakirev, to gather folksongs from the Vologda, Vyatka and Kostroma regions”. Clare Hammond informs us that: “…only one of his études, the Chant épique, uses a genuine folk melody, the three on this disc are replete with folk-like motifs.” A somewhat different experience awaits us in Clare’s gripping performance of Unsuk Chin’s études, which were not composed at the piano, but the product of the composer’s “aural imagination”. Idiomatic, abstract, resolute and assertive, and taking music into every conceivable dimension (even to that region which some might consider beyond music), this female disciple of Ligeti may yet come to intrigue and fascinate modern audiences – very much in the way Roxana Panufnik carries a torch for contemporary composers. The CD also contains 12 Studies by Szymanowski – that Polish 20th-century romantic, who combines elements of Debussy, Mahler and Scriabin – and Five Études by Nikolai Kapustin, a name unfamiliar to me until I discovered this enriching and stimulating collection.

Peter Donohoe (born in Manchester in 1953) has long been a fixture in British concert programmes and recordings, ever since his triumph at the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He has often performed in partnership with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (I remember him at the 1983 Proms in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – a performance that ended with a great roar of approval from the Prommers). Somm Records has provided Donohoe with a splendid platform for his virtuoso style and love of Russian music, in a new Prokofiev collection (CD 256): Piano Sonatas, nos. 9 & 10, two sonatinas, and the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 in C major. For the latter work – just over 20 minutes in duration – Donohoe achieves what must be a perfect realisation of Prokofiev’s emotions, style and state of mind at the end of a productive life, but one spent in the shadow of totalitarianism. The sometimes bare-boned music of the composer took some time “to grow” upon this reviewer, but over the years his work has made more and more of an impression upon me: a feeling of sinister Russian fairytales, orchestral violence, classical elegance (but in a 20th-century context) – and all overshadowed by the terrors and monoliths of the Stalinist Soviet state. It is difficult to conceive how creative, free-thinking men, such as Prokofiev and his fellow composer, Shostakovich, were able to live – either in a day-to-day sense, or at the higher artistic level – in such conditions. But they nevertheless managed to produce a large body of works, symphonies, ballets, operas, chamber music – which might, perhaps, have been less potent had they been nurtured in a liberal society. It is as if their works gathered an extra momentum and power from the very constraints which surrounded them.



The Cello Sonata, in which Donohoe is joined by the great Raphael Wallfisch (a cellist with a passion for contemporary works – and a student of Gregor Piatigorsky) seems to be a work which has escaped the Stalinist monitoring committee, despite being dedicated to Lev Atovmyan of the State Music Publishing House. It consists of three movements of individual feeling, conviction and thought, a powerful, noble voice – and resolute and uplifting in its Allegro ma non troppo conclusion – but a voice approaching the end of its life. The sonata was first performed in Moscow in 1950. Like Stalin, Prokofiev would be dead three years later. Once again, a very fine recording from Somm’s Producer, Siva Oke.

Finally, six Concerti Armonici have appeared on disc (for Somm Records, Céleste series CD 0141) – works which were once attributed to Pergolesi, but which we now believe (thanks to discoveries made by the Dutch musicologist, Alfred Dunning) came from the hand of the aristocratic, artistic diplomat, Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692-1766). Trained as a lawyer, and holding posts in various European capitals, the Count was also a member of the Dutch admiralty and that country’s East India Company. Malcolm MacDonald’s meticulous biographical notes inform us that van Wassenaer’s (serious) sideline was music and musical study, and that he spent time under the tutelage of Quirinus van Blankenburg, a harpsichordist of the early 18th-century.

Each concerto in this elegant collection consists of four short, melodious movements – some spirited, some grave and nostalgic, but all with the charm and finesse of an age of baroque palaces and halls; the culture and world from which Handel, Mozart, Haydn and eventually Beethoven, emerged. A lovely clarity comes from each section, with the Innovation Chamber Ensemble – a band of players from the ranks of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – performing with grace and precision, under artistic director, Richard Jenkinson. The instruments and accents, so well-pitched, modulated and blended together, seem to sigh with each reflective mood and moment, and throughout the 56 minutes and 54 seconds of this disc, the listener is transported back to the landscaped gardens of the ancien régime era which van Wassenaer inhabited.

Stuart Millson, Classical Music Editor


This entry was posted in QR Home and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to ENDNOTES

  1. David Ashton says:

    As always – interesting, perceptive and rich in style (except for that rare “lovely”, sorry Stuart). If only you could branch out to other journals and websites, never forsaking TQR of course.

    Collectivisation – wow! What a charming painting! Who reads books like Eugene Lyons’ “Assignment in Utopia” nowadays? We all know or think we know about the “Bombing of Guernica” – who knows or cares about the NKVD aircraft bombing reluctant kulaks?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.