Recordings of the Month: June 2022

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Following the successful revamp of this series, Pianodao now includes a monthly selection of interesting new music and top recordings.

Read on to discover four releases which captivated me this month, from the romantic music of Québec composer Augustine Descarries to reflective jazz by Bugge Wesseltoft and intelligent minimalism from Vanessa Wagner. But first…

Alexander Melnikov • Prokofiev Sonatas

My June Recording of the Month is the third instalment of Alexander Melnikov’s superb and distinctive cycle of the nine Prokofiev Sonatas, bringing us numbers 1,3 and 5, along with a wonderfully incisive rendition of the same composer’s Visions fugitives.

Prokofiev’s Sonatas date from every phase of his extraordinary career, but Melnikov’s earlier recordings in this outstanding series have already included the later sonatas (the three “War Sonatas” numbers 6-8, and Sonata No.9, written for Sviatoslav Richter), leaving the wonderful contrasts of Prokofiev’s earlier work for this varied and engrossing disc.

Sonata No.1 Op.1 (1909) is written in the ballade-sonata single movement vein of Scriabin’s later Sonatas, its dense Post-Romanticism equally showing Prokofiev’s debt to his teacher Lyadov and older contemporary Rachmaninoff.

Sonata No.3 Op.28 (1917), composed on the eve of the Russian Revolution, is again cast in a single movement, but what a difference we hear in musical style! From tense agitation to lush optimism, with Prokofiev’s trademark wit emerging, this is a virtuosic work which reveals Prokofiev the established modernist.

Sergei Prokofiev in 1918

Sonata No.5 Op.38 (1923) is the only work in the genre composed during Prokofiev’s sojourn in the West. The most accessible of the Sonatas, the piece might easily have been described as a neo-classical Sonatina, and has three balanced movements.

Visions Fugitives Op.22 dates from between 1915-17, inspired by lines written by the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont:

“In each fleeting vision I see worlds, full of the changing play of rainbows.”

This extraordinary succession of 20 short pieces, which range in length from 30 seconds to two minutes, is one of the great piano masterpieces of the twentieth century, a dazzling prism of inspiration, each miniature emblazoning itself in the imagination of player and listener alike.

In his detailed booklet note, André Lischke writes of the work:

“The most diverse aspects of Prokofiev come together in this work: lyricism, grotesquerie, a sense of the enigmatic, violence, caustic wit, the art of the image, outlines of dances, incursions into bitonality . . . A kaleidoscope displaying the facets of a composer who was at once Futurist, neo-classical, Symbolist, abstract and material, multiple and, in short, unclassifiable.”

It is his ability to illuminate each and every one of these facets which sets Melnikov apart from his peers in all this repertoire. His affinity for the character of Prokofiev’s writing is obvious, his technical mastery never in question, and his ability to emboss the composer’s quixotic nature with his own signature personality makes Melnikov’s Prokofiev cycle the one to beat across the board.

Completing a full recorded survey of all nine Sonatas is a feat few others have managed, and none with such aplomb. Tremendous!

Isabelle David • Souvenirs d’Auguste Descarries

Auguste Descarries (1896-1958) was a composer, pianist, organist and teacher whose mark on the musical life of his native Québec was formative. His music is being freshly championed by Canadian pianist Isabelle David, whose grandmother was in fact a student of Descarries.

David’s first solo album features 14 of his solo piano works, delivered with a comprehensive cocktail of exquisite pianism, academic insight (David recently completed her doctorate at the Université de Montréal editing manuscripts of this composer’s music), and artistic connection.

Leaf Music, who have released the recording, provide this video introduction which captures part of the first track, revealing the insouciant charm of Descarries’ music:

Regular Pianodao readers will know I have a penchant for the obscure and overlooked byways of the piano repertoire, and I have certainly found myself smitten with the harmonic inflections and melodic charms of these works. From the ravishing Pensées d’un soir de pluie to the simple beauty of Mon beau rêve, these are fabulous discoveries indeed.

Isabelle David proves herself the perfect advocate for this repertoire’s considerable appeal, playing with conviction and affection throughout this irresistible recital. I have been listening on repeat, enthralled, and warmly recommend that you take a listen to the full album.

Bugge Wesseltoft • be am

This month’s jazz choice is from Bugge Wesseltoft, a Norwegian jazz pianist, composer and producer whose many recordings chart a path from ambient electronic compositions (the superb Moving, 2001) to the melancholy jazz piano ballads of his latest release, the truly beautiful be am.

Released on the Jazzland Records label that Wesseltoft founded some 25 years ago, the album offers a contemplative reflection on the solitude and emotions of the pandemic period. Ranging effortlessly from the intimate to the quietly anthemic, and dressed in titles that subtly evoke the overwhelming anguish of the time, the album is a collection of jazz compositions at their most intense, humane and profound.

Wesseltoft’s love of electronic treatments is in evidence on some tracks, from the subtle background ambiences of the opening track resonate, to the more explicit appearance of taped birdsong in the etherial life. Meanwhile, on roads and emerging he is joined by the soulful tones of tenor sax player Håkon Kornstad, Wesseltoft himself switching over to the lush warmth of EP sounds.

For me, be am is ultimately an album of reflective late night music to listen to, experience, and be grateful for.

Vanessa Wagner • Study of the Invisible

Vanessa Wagner is a French classical pianist with an eclectic discography, the latest addition to which is an album of minimalist pieces called Study of the Invisible. I am thankful to my friend Garreth Brooke for introducing me to this wonderful release:

Wagner’s stated aim with this album is to introduce audiences to minimalist piano music by a range of composers, including “genre-benders” from the electronic and ambient sphere. Many of the pieces are rare or unpublished; all share an intimate essence which is perfectly captured by Wagner’s playing and the recording itself.

Pieces by Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Julia Wolfe sit alongside music by such contemporary luminaries as Suzanne Ciani, Caroline Shaw, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, David Lang, Bryce Dessner, Ezio Bosso, and Moondog.

Wagner’s persuasive and intense engagement with this music is palpable, her performances consistently as elevating as they are accomplished. Study of the Invisible becomes more than the sum of its parts, an absorbing musical tapestry which identifies and celebrates a compelling point of confluence in modern art music. Stunning.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.