Classic CD. Prokofiev Vol.1/2

May 1998

Prokofiev Piano Sonatas 6, 7 & 8
The Top five discs

…The expressive depth of these sonatas is unprecedented in Prokofiev’s work. They are also technically among the most daunting works ever written for the piano. The challenge for any pianist is to surmount their technical difficulties in order to fully reveal their expressive content. Drawing up a shortlist of recordings has highlighted casualties from recent deletions such as Peter Donohoe’s EMI cycle. Of complete recordings still available but not shortlisted, Ashkenazy’s on Decca sounds impatient and aggressive, as if he’s played the music too often. John Lill (ASV), living up to his reputation for stolid reliability, shows no feeling whatsoever for Prokofiev’s lyricism. Yakov Kasman’s complete sonata cycle on Galliope is a bargain on just two discs; his readings are dramatic, but tend on the eccentric, even; rather more fatally, there are times when his technique is not quite enough to master Prokofiev’s sometimes terrifying demands. The few pianists who meet Prokofiev’s challenge are:

  • Berman: scrupulous
  • Chiu: dazzling but dry
  • Richter: raw brilliance
  • Ovchinikov: fresh view
  • CLASSIC CD CHOICE — Marshev: conviction

It would be foolish to pretend that Oleg Marshev gets everything “right” — no pianist has. For instance his Eighth Sonata, though memorably chilling, misses aspects — particularly the charm of the central movement — revealed by Richter and Ovchinikov. His performances are outstanding, though, not only for his impeccable technique and sense of poetry, but above all his sense of conviction: one always feels he knows what he is doing and is “living” the music.

His Sixth Sonata is easily the most convincing on disc, capturing both the unpleasant aggressiveness of its opening theme (taken at quite a deliberate but convincing speed) and the sensuous beauty of the contrasting lyrical second subject. After a sardonic second movement come the heart of the sonata, played daringly slowly with plenty of rubato: the result is wistful and genuinely “felt”. as if recalling a poignant memory. One might quibble that Marshev does not fade to pp at the movement’s end as Prokofiev asks, so missing some of its “sting in the tale”. The finale shows off his brilliant technique, and he captures perfectly the sheer panic that grips the music after the reappearance of the first movement’s men-acting motif.

Better still is his Seventh Sonata, with a particularly stunning central movement (track 14 on our cover CD) and propulsive finale.

The Eighth Sonata appears on a separate volume of Marshev’s complete Prokofiev piano series. On the plus side Marshev’s characterisation of the “musical box” theme is chilling and yet utterly haunting. That and the artfully created sense of weary disorientation add to a powerful conception, but anyone wanting a rounder picture of this work may be tempted to buy the Richter disc instead to go with Marshev’s Sixth and Seventh.

Daniel Jaffé