Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Short and not entirely sweet: Prokofiev by Arrangement

Prokofiev by Arrangement; Yuri Kalnits, Yulia Chaplina; Toccata Classics
Prokofiev by Arrangement
; Yuri Kalnits, Yulia Chaplina; Toccata Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
With Visions Fugitives at its core, this delightful recital strings together over three dozen of Prokofiev's short pieces arranged for violin and piano

This disc from Toccata Classics presents something of a portrait of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, not through a group of magisterial works, but via a kaleidoscope or collage of fragments.
Toccata Classics' Prokofiev by Arrangement features 37 short pieces by Prokofiev arranged for violin and piano by a variety of his contemporaries and played by Yuri Kalnits (violin) and Yulia Chaplina (piano). The music varies from something written when he was 10, to music from the ballets Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower, the operas War and Peace, and The Love for Three Oranges, but the central work on the disc is the 20 movement Visions Fugitives.

The arrangers are a wide range of artists, pianist Viktor Derevianko (born 1937),  violinist and teacher Mikhail Fikhtengolts (1920–85), violinists Jascha Heifetz (1901–86), Yair Kless (b. 1940), Nathan Milstein (1904–92), Mikhail Reitikh (1909–84), and pianist and composer Grigori Zinger (1913–2003).

Prokofiev wrote his 20-movement suite Visions Fugitives in 1915-1917, often writing individual movements for friends, and he premiered the whole cycle in 1918. The title comes from a 1903 poem, I know no wisdom, by Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), a poet whom Prokofiev much admired for the musicality of his verse, and in fact in Russian the title is a word invented by Balmont, ‘Mimolyotnosti’ (literally ‘Transiences’ or ‘Ephemeralities’), When Prokofiev played the complete piano work to the poet, in the hope that he would find the title and the music appropriate, Balmont's girl-friend, a fluent French-speaker, came up with the title Visions Fugitives by which the cycle is known outside Russia. 

In a 1941 article to mark his 50th birthday, Prokofiev identified the elements in his style. It is a paragraph well worth returning to:

"First there is the classical tendency, originating in early childhood when I used to listen to my mother playing Beethoven sonatas. [...] The second tendency is toward innovation. [...] initially a search for a distinctive harmony, later for a language in which to express strong emotions. The third is the toccata, or if one prefers, the motoric tendency. [...] The fourth is the lyric tendency. [...] I should prefer to confine myself to these four and to regard a fifth, the ‘grotesque’, more as an extension of the other four. [...] As applied to my music I would rather have ‘grotesque’ replaced by a term such as ‘jocular’, or perhaps three terms suggesting different levels of its intensity: ‘jest’, ‘laughter’, ‘mockery’."

All these elements are found in the Visions Fugitives, and Prokofiev's exploration of harmony is remarkable for its daring, yet always within a familiar harmonic context and, of course, with a seductive melody near-by. The results are entrancing, and never more so than in these arrangements by Viktor Derevianko.

The recital begins with 'Andantino' from Tales of an Old Grandmother, written in 1918 to make some money when he arrived in the USA. And it then continues with a selection of pieces from Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella, written in the 1940s and premiered in 1945. The suite was put together by violinist and pedagogue Mikhail Fikhtengolts after Prokofiev’s death.

Visions Fugitives follows, and then a wonderful array of short pieces taking in opera, music for the stage, piano pieces and ballet. All short, all utterly delightful and many having a sting in the tail. Prokofiev was in the habit of referring to his short pieces as 'doggies' (‘Sobachki’) because of the painful bite they invariably incorporated.

What is amazing about this disc is that you forget that these are arrangements, the combination of violin and piano seems to work so brilliantly well, emphasising the bitter-sweet, lyrical quality of the music but not neglecting the underlying bite. And if a disc of 37 short tracks seems hard going, then think again because the selection works well and the performances from Yuri Kalnits and Yulia Chaplina bring out all the right qualities in the music. This is one of those projects don't seem to have any particular imperative, but once experienced you wonder why it hasn't been done before.

Prokofiev by Arrangement
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Tales of an Old Grandmother, Op. 31 (1918) - No. 2 Andantino
Five Pieces from the Ballet Cinderella, Op. 87 (1940–44)
Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (1915–17)
War and Peace, Op. 91 (1941–52) - Waltz
Egyptian Nights: Suite, Op. 61 (1934) - No. 6 The Fall of Cleopatra
Childhood Manuscripts (1901) - Tarantella
Boris Godunov, Op. 70bis (1936) - No. 13 Amoroso
Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 32 (1918)
Music for Children, Op. 65 (1935) - No. 11 Evening
The Love for Three Oranges: Suite, Op. 33 (1919, rev. 1924) - No. 4 March
The Tale of the Stone Flower, Op. 118 (1948–53) - Diamond Valse*
Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12 (1906–13) - No. 6 Legend, No. 3 Rigaudon
Yuri Kalnits (violin)
Yulia Chaplina (piano)
Recorded 8 December 2017, 30 September 2018, Masterchord Studio, London
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0135 1CD [64.29]

Available from Amazon.

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