Thursday 3 November 2011

Divine Art's Prokofiev

Russian Piano Music Vol.7: Prokofiev
Piano Sonatas 2 & 7
Visions fugatives (selections)
10 pieces from Romeo and Juliet (selections)

Sergei Dukachev

Divine Art DDA25096

It seems appropriate that Prokofiev wrote some of his finest and most varied music for his own instrument, the piano.  Prokofiev left a handful of recordings of his own playing for posterity, setting a high standard for those wanting to follow in his footsteps and tackle this remarkable oeuvre.  That bar was maintained by two of Prokofiev’s pianist colleagues, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Ricther, so that anyone attempting this repertoire is stepping into a mighty tradition.  This volume continues Divine Art’s survey of an even grander tradition: the hi-ways and by-ways of Russian piano music.

Divine Art’s Prokofiev compilation begins with the Second Piano Sonata of 1912, the most substantial among the first five.  It’s a case of serving the best first in Dukachev’s case, as this performance is the most secure on the disc with only the final Vivace suffering from a few blemishes.  The Andante is successful, with Dukachev building the tension effectively throughout. 

Only a few notes into his selection from the Visions Fugitives, however, and alarm bells ring.  Dukachev misses a chord in the left hand of No.1, leading to a bar or so of mismatched left and right hands.  It sounds so deliberate that I questioned my own edition of the score, but checking the original Russian print confirms that it must be a mistake on Dukachev’s part.  It turns out that these are live recordings, taken from a number of different concerts; not that you’d know from the back of the box.  So, a memory slip could be forgiven - it’s certainly happened to the very best in the past – but who is going to want to listen to this mistake again and again?

Armed with the knowledge that these are live recordings (only confirmed inside the booklet), the lack of audience noise throughout (save for the end of the 7th Sonata, which includes applause) is a relief, and the disc’s live status goes some way to explain Dukachev’s untidy finger work in the faster passages of the Op.22 selections.  All pianists make mistakes in concert, but these performances aren’t persuasive enough in their own terms to warrant anyone returning to them and hearing those mistakes again.

Four of Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet suffer from the same issues, though they confirm that Dukachev is at least good at dreamy atmosphere, such as that conjured for the beginning of Romeo and Juliet before parting.  The Seventh Sonata, one of Prokofiev’s fiercest works in any genre, is given a reasonable performance which impresses mostly in the shell-shocked second movement Andante coloroso, but the Precipitato finale is disappointingly underpowered. 

Across the entire disc, there is the added problem of poor sound, which varies quite noticeably between pieces but which is always consistently bad.  It would have been poor by the standards of four decades ago; the fact that all of these recordings were taped during or after 2000 makes the situation particularly unforgivable.  I’m inclined to give Dukachev the benefit of the doubt in some cases of muddy playing, as the acoustic and production can only have made the problems worse than they might have seemed at the time of the performances.  But the sound problems are enough on their own for me to direct anyone interested in sampling Prokofiev’s wonderful piano music elsewhere, such as to Bernd Glemser’s three budget priced discs of Prokofiev’s complete piano sonatas (including the Romeo and Juliet pieces) on Naxos (8553021; 8554270; 8555030), at the very least.

This review originally appeared at Musicweb International.

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