Prokofiev Piano Works, Vol. 5
For a work that was once regarded as a landmark in twentieth-century piano music, Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis has received scant attention in the way of recent studio recordings from pianists of note. To be fair, it is not an easy work for either audience or artist: its contrapuntal, angular and unforgiving textures pose demanding interpretative problems for the pianist, and at 50 minutes’ duration its knotty sound-world can be difficult to digest for even the most enthusiastic of listeners. Even in the hands of a giant such as Sviatoslav Richter, in a live recording dating from 1985, one can sense the hurdles taking their toll. However, these two new recordings may go some way to increasing our understanding and appreciation of this problematic work.
From an interpretative standpoint John McCabe and Olli Mustonen give very different performances. McCabe’s strong points are structure, contrapuntal clarity (to the point of dryness at times) and a strong sense of something monumental unfolding. When compared with Mustonen he can seem a little impersonal and distant. In Mustonen’s reading there is a real sense of journey as he traverses the 25 studies and there is greater tonal variation, expressive range and playfulness in his playing, which I find helps the listener to feel more involved in this music. As to which is preferable, I wouldn’t like to say – die-hard Hindemith enthusiasts may find McCabe’s approach the more authoritative, but Mustonen is extremely persuasive in the way he sheds new light on this music, making it more accessible – ideal, I would say, for winning new admirers to the work.
McCabe’s fill-up is the Suite 1922, a piece once described in these pages by BM as “lurid”. I know exactly what he means – there’s little to warm to in this work, even when it’s given as persuasive a reading as it is here. Mustonen opts for Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives which makes an effective contrast. There’s strong competition in the catalogue here but Mustonen acquits himself well, giving a fluid and beautifully shaped account of these “fleeting thoughts”, and, like the Hindemith, these have been well captured by the Decca engineers.
Turning to Frederic Chiu, who has now reached the fifth volume in his survey of Prokofiev’s piano music for Harmonia Mundi, we find a different reading again. Chiu is less lyrical and pliable in his interpretation than Mustonen, preferring a crisper and more sharply characterized reading – much in keeping with his overall stance towards Prokofiev’s piano music. Again it is a matter of personal preference, though I have always found the dryer, more acetone approach to Prokofiev less to my liking. In the remaining pieces, for instance (particularly the two sets of Four Pieces, Opp. 3 and 4), my first choice would be Boris Berman whose performances carry more colour and subtle nuance, though having said that I have to add that Chiu’s readings of Sarcasms and the Toccata are certainly impressive. At times the piano sound is a little close.'