On record – Steven Osborne: Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas nos. 6-8

Steven Osborne (piano)

Prokofiev
Piano Sonatas: no.6 in A minor Op.82 (1940), no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942), no.8 in B flat major Op.84 (1944)

Hyperion CDA68298 [74’21”]

Producer Steven Johns
Engineer David Hinitt

Recorded February 2019, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Steven Osborne has been an advocate of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano music for a number of years now, receiving rave reviews for his performances of the sonatas in particular. This release has therefore been keenly awaited for some time, as Osborne takes on the composer’s so-called ‘war trilogy’.

Prokofiev himself did not label the pieces in this way, but he did work on them simultaneously between 1939 and 1944, as the full horror of the Second World War became apparent. While the composer’s public facing side was preoccupied with writing music of which Stalin could not disapprove, the Piano Sonatas are more private works, the composer left with his real thoughts alone at the piano.

Prokofiev himself gave the premiere of the Sixth Sonata in 1940, after which the following two works were left in the considerable hands of Sviatoslav Richter (1943) and Emil Gilels (1944). Each premiere was given in Moscow.

What’s the music like?

While the Piano Sonata no.7 is found in concert relatively often on account of its virtuosity and dramatic impact, the two around it are lesser spotted companions. They are however two of the composer’s most substantial and meaningful works. The Seventh itself is restless, like a cat on a hot tin roof in the fast outer movements, but pausing for deep and soulful reflection in the second.

The Piano Sonata no.6 has a great depth of feeling. Its first movement presents a caustic but memorable main theme, while the second, a scherzo, is equal parts dry humour and studied, chromatic reflection. A waltz follows, its long and delicate melodies reminding us of Prokofiev as a composer for the stage, before the finale brings forward an extraordinary theme, quick and quiet initially but building to a close of formidable power.

Meanwhile the Piano Sonata no.8, while retaining the key of the seventh, is a very different beast. Prokofiev’s most substantial work for solo piano, it has much longer musical phrases and appears to portray the composer’s innermost thoughts.

Does it all work?

Wholeheartedly. Osborne has the measure of Prokofiev’s music, producing a devastating combination of virtuosity and deep-set feeling.

In the Piano Sonata no.6 there is no doubt of the force of the composer’s emotion, his despair and anger at the unfolding conflict tampered by music of a much softer touch. The abrasive start, major and minor chords clashing, tells you all you need to hear, yet perhaps even more striking are the quieter passages, which Osborne plays with pointed delicacy, the ticking sound in the first movement drawing the listener in, and the ripples of lyricism in the third presenting a compelling scene. Yet there is great resolve here, which comes to the fore in the finale, Osborne driving forward with the main theme but lowering the temperature considerably with a haunting reappearance of the main tune from the first movement.

The Seventh Sonata is terrific, played right on the edge of the cliff but again with keen dramatic instinct. The first movement dances around its central key of B flat major with edgy impatience. Osborne’s dynamic range is hugely impressive, ranging from intimate asides to the clanging percussive passages Prokofiev loves to use. Turning inwards for the slow movement, he goes deep into some of Prokofiev’s most moving music for piano, the lilting contour of the left hand at the start building to a powerful apex in the middle. The third movement Toccata is gone in a flash, driving incessantly forward, grimly determined as though looking to escape its pursuers but trampling on them by the end!

Despite these impressive achievements Osborne’s Eighth Sonata is the crowning glory of this set. He allows the ruminative first movement plenty of time to air its thoughts, Prokofiev in contemplative mood for an unusually concentrated stretch, before the more abrasive thoughts of the previous sonatas bubble to the surface.

The second movement offers a chance for repose, its relatively gentle demeanour helped by a triple time lilt that Osborne paces attractively. The finale brings renewed energy, a valedictory air around both its first theme and the commanding central section, which the pianist takes by the scruff of the neck, leading to a barnstorming closing page.

Hyperion’s sound is ideal, Osborne placed in excellent digital perspective but with plenty of room for Prokofiev’s very biggest sound. There is a huge dynamic range in this music and thankfully we get the best of all worlds.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. These sonatas have had some fine recordings over the years, and Osborne’s join those right at the top of the digital list. An outstanding achievement from all involved.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Hyperion website here

Live review – Clara Mouriz, CBSO / Jaume Santonja Espinos: Rimsky-Korsakov, Montsalvatge, Falla & Prokofiev

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santonja Espinos (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 13 November 2019

Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol Op.34 (1887)
Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras (1945, orch. 1949)
De Falla El sombrero de tres picos (Suites 1 & 2) (1919)
Prokofiev Symphony no.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (Clara Mouriz) JM Bielsa

Now into his second season as assistant conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jaume Santonja Espinos has already made his mark so that tonight’s programme of his own choosing saw a juxtaposition of Russian and Spanish music equally to the orchestra’s liking. Certainly they pitched head first into Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Capriccio Espagnol, its ‘Alborada’ sections accordingly boisterous with the ‘Variazioni’ not lacking eloquence, then the bracing contrasts of the final ‘Fandango’ building gradually while inexorably to an effervescent close.

A pity Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is not more widely known, his stylistic amalgam of French impressionist with Spanish-cum-Latinate qualities appealing without being anodyne. Provocation is hardly lacking in his Canciones negras – its resourceful orchestral garb duly pointing up the fraught nostalgia of Cuba in a piano and smouldering sexuality as underpins Habanera rhythm, which aspect takes a more sinister turn in The Dandy as itself contrasts with the plaintiveness of Lullaby for a little black boy, before the verbal onomatopoeia of ‘Negro Song’ brings a visceral close. Clara Mouriz was in her element throughout one of the few Spanish song-cycles to have entered the repertoire, making one hope she and Santonja Espinos might tackle Roberto Gerhard‘s bewitching Cancionero de Pedrell before too long.

A swift return to the platform enabled Mouriz to add vocal enticements to the opening of de Falla‘s The Three Cornered Hat, both suites from which were heard this evening. The rather piecemeal first of these is dominated by the Dance of the Miller’s Wife, suitably suave and sensuous, while the three pieces that comprise the Second Suite (a CBSO staple in decades past) were judiciously characterized; the langour of the Neighbour’s Dance followed by the propulsion of the Miller’s Dance; then the heady denouement of the Final Dance enabling Santonja Espinos to secure playing both stylish and subtle on route to a scintillating close. Programming de Falla’s Love the Magician would have given the estimable Mouriz rather more to do, yet no-one hearing the present selection was likely to have felt short-changed.

The decidedly un-Spanish restraint of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony risked seeming anti-climactic after the interval, though this performance more than had its measure. The opening Moderato exemplified that ambiguity between wistfulness and resignation lying at the heart of this composer’s last major work, with the ensuing Allegretto a waltz-sequence of teasing understatement prior to its uproarious coda. Even better was the Andante, its variations on a theme of disarming simplicity affectingly rendered – after which, the final Vivace lacked that last degree of irony for its playfulness to feel more than dutiful. The return of the first movement’s big tune was powerfully despatched but, even with the original quiet ending, the closing bars were too matter-of-fact for their inherent pathos to come through unabated.

Even so, a thoughtful account of a piece as yields its depths but gradually. Santonja Espinos’s concerts with the CBSO are worth the anticipation: should he wish to include more Spanish music, the fiftieth anniversary of Gerhard’s death next year would be worth commemorating.

Listen

You can listen to a playlist of the music featured in this concert on Spotify below, including the recording made by Clara Mouriz herself with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena:

Wigmore Mondays – Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek play Sibelius, Prokofiev, Knussen, Mahler and Bernd Zimmermann

Leila Josefowicz (violin), John Novacek (piano) (photo: Hiroyuki Ito for the New York Times)

Sibelius arr. Friedrich Hermann Valse triste (1903-4) (2:10-6:40)
Prokofiev Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80: 2nd movement Allegro brusco (1938-46) (6:45-13:21)
Knussen Reflection (2016) (15:17-23:44)
Mahler arr. Otto Wittenbecher Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor: 4th movement Adagietto (1901-2, arr. 1914) (25:45-34:00)
Zimmermann Sonata for violin and piano (1950) (34:51-48:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 21 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On paper, this was a strange programme for an hour-long lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. Yet that in itself is refreshing. Why should programming have to be conventional and fit a particular blueprint all the time? So while I may not have necessarily warmed to their choices initially, on reflection Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek gave us something different. There was a chance for those attending and listening on BBC Radio 3 to hear two very familiar pieces out of context, complemented by music such as the Zimmermann Violin Sonata that we may not have heard before.

Josefowicz and Novacek begin with a highly charged account of Valse triste (2:10 on the broadcast link), the third number from Sibelius’s Kuolema Suite. This is normally heard in the hands of a string orchestra, but the arrangement here – and the ardour with which Josefowicz plays the violin line – especially when doubled with the piano – brings a striking dimension to the piece.

It would have been lovely to hear Josefowicz and Novacek take on the whole of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80, for this is a dramatic piece indeed with a chill to its writing that would have matched the weather outside. Sadly the second movement was all we had time for (from 6:45), and it felt disjointed outside of its familiar context, despite the passion invested in it by both performers.

Of far greater meaning was Oliver Knussen’s Reflection (15:17), one of his last completed works. Josefowicz was a close acquaintance of the composer, and he wrote his Violin Concerto of 2002 for her. The Reflection is not necessarily what you would expect, a reminder that not all reflections are calm and reflective. It begins urgently, the violin ascending before being joined by the bell-like sonorities of the piano. Some of the reflections are jagged, and most are urgent – and typically for Knussen there is a great deal of interest in the melodies and textures, a style that is compact and extremely listenable but also forward-looking. It finishes abruptly.

The excellent writer Paul Griffiths clearly had trouble finding any information on arranger Otto Wittenbecher, let alone anything to do with his version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no.5. This famous excerpt transfers surprisingly well to the reduced forces here, helped by sumptuous tone and control from Josefowicz, whilst Novacek distils the orchestral parts into something surprisingly manageable. Played with soft affection, the main theme leaves its mark, even though the arrangement is taken at quite a quick pace.

The main work of this recital, Bernd Zimmermann’s Violin Sonata made a strong impact. In three concise movements, it manages to explore the outer realms of twelve tone writing without compromising its composer’s folk-inflected style. From the outset at 34:51 Josefowicz and Novacek carry the urgency of the piece as though it were hot in their hands. The inflections are reminiscent of Bartók but have a more jagged melodic style; the punchy percussive approach from the piano is similar however. The slow movement (39:00), is written in a 12-tone form (that is, each of the 12 pitches has to sound before it can be heard again). It is however surprisingly tonal, with its stress on the pitches of ‘C’ and ‘F sharp’ giving the music a restless base. The nocturnal scene again recalls Bartók but is resolutely Zimmermann’s own, with passionate lines from the violin. The busy third movement (44:07) revisits the mood of the first, with terse but meaningful statements from the duo.

As an encore the duo added Charlie Chaplin’s Smile (50:06) in an initially eerie, high-range arrangement made by Claus Ogermann.

Further Listening

Most of the music in this concert (with the exception of the Knussen) can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

For further insight into Josefowicz’s clever programming, her disc with Novacek For The End Of Time provides ample evidence, bringing together works by Falla, Messiaen, Grieg and Bartók:

Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Gavrylyuk plays Prokofiev, Mozart & Rachmaninov

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)

Mozart Piano Sonata in C major K330 (c1783) (1:56-20:20 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov Preludes: in G flat major Op.23/10 (1903), in G minor Op.23/5 (1903), in G sharp minor Op.32/12 (1910) (22:04-32:25)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942) (34:12-51:06)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 7 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On his website, Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk makes the profound statement that ‘not many things in this world can unite people – no form of diplomacy could ever do that. I think that music comes the furthest in revealing that perhaps on a deeper level we are all quite similar’.

The quote is especially instructive given the work with which Gavrylyuk ended this concert, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7. Yet in these uncertain times his words are appropriate to any musical experience. Few have the purity of his Mozart, an account of the Piano Sonata in C major K330, the composer’s tenth published work in the form which was written just after he moved to Vienna. Published in his late twenties, it is very much a ‘white’ work – as in, written in the key whose scale uses all the white notes on the keyboard.

Yet, as a listen to this performance (from 1:56 on the broadcast link) will show, Mozart enjoys a good deal of chromatic movement, using the black notes to add considerable spice and intrigue to what initially seems like an extremely polite piece. Gavrylyuk plays with poise and elegance, enjoying the composer’s good manners but equally thriving on the diversions as they get more pronounced.

The slow movement (from 8:59) reveals much more of these tendencies, especially in its central minor key episode, a deeply personal piece of writing with tragic overtones (from 11:28). It casts a shadow from which the whole movement takes a while to recover, even when moving back into the safer intimacy of the major key (13:38). With a cutesy flourish the finale (15:22) returns us to happier music making, and seems to take on the influence of Scarlatti while looking forward to early Beethoven. Again Mozart enjoys more exotic melodies than the key suggests, keeping wit and positivity to the fore.

Rachmaninov’s big early success as a composer came through the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, its declamation a big hit with audiences. From this he was inspired to write 24 Preludes, one in each key, published in two subsequent books of 13 and 10 works respectively. The three heard here are fine pieces in their own right, beginning with the relatively confidential Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (22:04). This leads to the raw power of the Prelude in G minor Op.23/5 (25:24), one of Rachmaninov’s best-loved piano pieces, which builds into a march of real substance in Gavrylyuk’s performance. The Prelude In G sharp minor Op.32/12 (29:40) is an intriguing work, its bell-like sonorities hinting at the influence of the East and leaving quite an impression in this performance.

The reason Gavrylyuk’s statement is so pertinent to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7 is because the piece was written – as with so many Soviet pieces of its era – on two levels. Its crowd-facing elements were to please Stalin, to ensure Prokofiev stayed in his favour with works that left his audience in an ultimately positive frame of mind. How could they be otherwise, given the ferocity of the final movement? And yet the private elements are there for all who listen closely, for this is the central of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, completed in 1939. The first movement may be loud and brash (from 34:12) but it also has music of barely concealed turmoil, revealed clearly in the second theme two minutes later, where the virtuosity is completely absent.

Prokofiev is one of the most percussive of earlier 20th century composers for the piano, alongside Bartók and Stravinsky, and as the first movement proceeds there is an impressive rhythmic drive. All that is removed for the profound slow movement, however (42:11), where he quotes from Wehmut (Sadness), part of Schumann‘s Op.39 cycle Liederkreis, another private clue to his predicament.

In this performance Gavrylyuk has the sonata’s measure to a tee, investing a lot of feeling in the slower music while seemingly using the louder moments to banish evil from his sight. The last movement (47:57) is thrill-a-second, the repeated three note motif in the left hand taking over and driving to a hugely impressive finish, by which time the pianist was so far back he was almost horizontal!

Appropriately we had calming Schumann for an encore, providing a consoling link to the slow movement of the Prokofiev. This was Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) from his 1838 collection Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15 (52:28).

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Alexander Gavrylyuk’s own recording of the Prokofiev:

The recording of the Prokofiev is part of an intriguing recital disc released in 2011, which includes works by fellow Russian composers Rachmaninov (his underrated Moments Musicaux Op.16) and Scriabin (his Piano Sonata no.5):

Meanwhile to further explore the Prokofiev piano sonatas, Denis Kozhukhin is an excellent guide. This album contains the other two sonatas in the so-called ‘war trilogy’ of works:

Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen at the Wigmore Hall – A Revolutionary cello recital

Steven Isserlis (cello) and Olli Mustonen (piano)

Prokofiev Ballade, Op.15 (1912)
Mustonen Chanson russe & Danse Oriental (1995)
Kabalevsky Cello Sonata in B flat major Op.71 (1962)

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 29 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A chamber concert with revolution in the air. This carefully chosen recital was short and to the point, but contained some deeply meaningful music lying just outside of the normal repertoire for cello and piano. Just before Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen played an early Sibelius Waltz as their encore, the cellist explained the programme’s themes of revolution, both in Russia and Finland.

They began with a startling performance of Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, startling in the sense that this music was brought to life with an intensity rarely experienced in this or any of the composer’s music. Isserlis was at his probing best, particularly in the pizzicato sections, but Mustonen took the lead, bringing out the composer’s phrasing as only he can, with heavily weighted emphasis on the most important harmonic notes. Thus the piece became a Ballade in the truest sense of the word – dark, passionate and stormy.

Mustonen’s joining of links between his own Finland and Russia was next, the Chanson russe surprising in its simplicity, which was touchingly effective, before a whirlwind Danse Oriental that could have been contemporaneous with the Prokofiev. It made a highly effective concert piece, and both performers clearly enjoyed it.

The most substantial piece was Kabalevsky’s Cello Sonata, written perhaps inevitably for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1962. With some of the Rostropovich dedications the cellist’s spirit hangs heavily over the music, and it was easy to imagine his larger than life projections of the melodies. While Isserlis may not have the sheer volume of the late Russian (who does?!) he has sensitive phrasing and a lovely tone at his disposal, and, at the beginning of the second movement, produced a feather-light touch on the tremolos that sent a shiver down the spine.

Again it was satisfying to experience a piece packed full of melody, and with more harmonic sleights that Mustonen inevitably brought to the fore. The style could be viewed as a hybrid of Prokofiev and Shostakovich – no bad thing, certainly! – and the main melody, which reappeared at the end, had a harmonic twist and simplicity that pulled subtly at the heartstrings.

The major-minor subtleties of the writing were fully explored, and while Mustonen often took the lead rhythmically this felt wholly appropriate. Kabalevsky is a composer whose music works well in the concert hall, with memorable tunes, a sense of humour and pockets of unexpected poignancy. It is less obviously weighted than Prokofiev but extremely enjoyable on its own terms.

Gratifyingly, Isserlis and Mustonen explored those qualities to the full, and with their virtuosity and drive they gave the composer the best possible advocacy. The Sibelius waltz, known as the Lulu Waltz, was economy itself, over in a minute – but leaving a strong impression.

Further listening and reading

Unfortunately this concert is not available online, but you can hear the premiere recording, made by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with the composer at the piano, on the Spotify link below:

In addition the Kabalevsky Cello Concertos are highly recommended – and they can be heard in these recent recordings by Torleif Thedéen and the Hannover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eiji Oue: