UNSPECIFIED - 1921: Serguei Sergueievitch Prokofiev (1891-1953), Russian composer and pianist. (Photo by Choumoff/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

Prokofiev, Tcherepnin: The Bark of Yearning (Avi-music)

This is prime Prokofiev

Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Western orchestras take a binary view of the Russian 20th century. Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are good for business, the rest are box-office death. Like most iron rules, these categorisations are pointless and misleading.

Prokofiev can be bad for audiences, very bad, when you leave him alone in a room with a piano. His Five Sarcasms, dated 1912-14, come as close to atonality as Schoenberg in a fish-shop tantrum, while Visions Fugitives of 1915-17 are way off the scale of anything you’d allow a Ukrainian refugee play on your prize Bechstein.

Prokofiev can be the most annoying composer you never met, and he won’t let you forget it.  At his best — and this is prime Prokofiev — he is provocative, intimidating, original and inimitable. The Visions are awe-inspiring when played as well as this.

Like all great composers, Prokofiev doesn’t come from nowhere. One of his teachers was the quirky Nikolai Tcherepnin, who wrote a 1917 musical exploration of Pushkin’s The Fisherman and the Fish before opting for lifelong exile and obscurity in Montmartre. Tcherepnin’s son Alexander stayed on in Russia, but grew grew fascinated by Japan and took a Chinese wife. He wound up in the US where he wrote outlandish harmonic structures for mainstream orchestras that have seldom been replayed.

Placing Prokofiev between the Tcherepnins, father and son, as Alexander Gadjiev does in this riveting and refreshing recital, is illuminating in more ways than can be imagined in brief review. Gadjiev, 27, is a pianist who makes you think. A Slovene-Italian who came second in the 2021 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, gave this album a near-Dadaist title, The Bark of Yearning. Sadly, it got left off the cover.

The record industry struggles to keep up with the imagination of its artists.

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