There are lots of very good pianists in the world. Hundreds, possibly thousands. Yet the recording companies would have you believe that there are just those few that they want to promote. Just a dozen are well-known enough to be household names in the classical music world.
We all know of Brendel, Ashkenazy, Gould, Uchida, Pollini and their kind. They are superstars. They are brand-names. You know what you're getting when you buy their recordings. Sure you're getting polished performances, artistic excellence. But you are also getting CD company marketing and sales hype.
What you rarely get is new names from the vast pool of excellence. The Naxos label is different. We at Good-Music-Guide have long been fans of this budget-priced label that produces world-class recordings from almost unknown performers.
Bernd Glemser could never claim he suffered from household-name syndrome. Outside of his rather esoteric world of piano competitions, he is an unknown. And yet, he is a prodigious talent. He made a name for himself by winning 17 successive international piano competitions, and was described by Harold C. Schoenberg, the New York Times critic, as possesing technical ability of world stature, an aristocratic player who had - in the true spirit of a Glenn Gould - totally exploded the competition.
Glemser has recorded exclusively for Naxos, and has set himself a huge task. He intends to record the complete piano works of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev. So, far, only the Prokofiev Sonatas are completed, on 3 CDs. And if this is the standard for the entire series, this will be a landmark event.
The piano sonata reached its peak with Beethoven, who wrote 32 of them. Amazingly, after Beethoven the genre became neglected. It was Prokofiev who revived the piano sonata, and his set of nine are the most significant since Beethoven's day.
But they are a world away from Beethoven's classical and expressive works. They are modern, percussive, lyrical, virtuoso masterpieces that are one of the great body of works for piano of the twentieth century.
Prokofiev wrote the sixth, seventh and eighth piano sonatas during the Second World War, and they have become known as the War Sonatas
. Undoubtedly the most popular is the seventh, also called the Stalingrad
It begins with a forceful march, brutal and disturbing. Its goes through many contortions before reasserting itself, sometimes almost a comic parody of militarism, reminding one of the march in Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. The second movement is a lyrical respite with a central section of tortured tolling bells.
But the finale is the kicker. Written in 7/8 time, it is a spectacular perpertuo mobile
, a true virtuoso piece that brings to mind Prokofiev's Toccata
and the final movement from his third piano concerto. This is music that will knock your socks off.
The eighth sonata, the last War Sonata
is less well known and more complex. In complete contrast to the savagery of the first two, it starts out with a long, slow, brooding contemplative movement, a reflection, perhaps, on the destruction and death that Russia suffered.
The second movement, Andante sognando
, is a tender, bittersweet waltz. With its unusual harmonies, it could only have come from the pen of Prokofiev. The final movement is a witty dance, as dazzling as anything in Romeo and Juliet
For years Sviatoslav Richter's performances of these were regarded as definitive and unsurpassable. Well, these recordings now are unobtainable, and Bernd Glemser has equalled them. His performances are bitingly sharp, wistfully poignant and technically perfect. He brings a personality to them that is too often lacking. Prokofiev is all about personality and idiosyncrasy and these performance have character in bucket-loads.
Bravo Bernd Glemser, and Bravo Naxos. May we hear more from you in the future.
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Piano Sonatas Volume 1
- Allegro inqueto - Andantino - Allegro
Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, op. 83
- Andante caloroso
Sonata No. 2 In D Minor, Op. 14
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Scherzo: Allegro marcato
Sonata No. 8 In B Flat Major, Op.84
- Andante dolce - Allegro moderato - Andante dolce - Allegro
- Andante sognando
- Vivace - Allegro ben marcato - Andantino - Vivace