PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84; Four Pieces, Op. 4; Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 – Jerry Wong, piano – MSR Classics MS 1357 [Distr. by Albany], 64:25 ***:
If the three Wartime Sonatas of Prokofiev are his most celebrated, the most celebrated of all is the middle one, No. 7, with it cyclonic toccata of a finale, sure to bring down the house. Even though it’s harder to hold together because of its extreme length, Sonata No. 8 is not far behind, featured almost as often in recitals and recordings. Even so, it’s a crap shoot for pianists since the first movement especially can appear to ramble. This movement alternates slow and fast sections, the first section marked Andante dolce, the second Allegro moderato (inquieto). Making this sweetness and inquietude work together is something of a balancing act, and while Jerry Wong brings both depth of feeling and powerful technique to the movement, a sense of architecture is not the greatest virtue here.
One problem is his choice of tempos. His andante in both the opening movement and middle movement feels more like an adagio. This is especially the case in the second movement, where the Andante sognando (“slow and dreamy”) is so slow as to edge from dreaminess into a state of suspended animation, which I associate more with nightmare than with dream! Wong’s is by far the slowest rendition I’ve heard, and it frankly doesn’t work well as a bridge between the Andante dolce of the first movement and Vivace of the finale. Here again, unfortunately, there’s a tendency to plod a bit. The opening of the last movement should fly like a typical Prokofiev toccata, but Wong seems cautious, unwilling to fly with it.
The upside is that we can savor Prokofiev’s by-turns sweet and acerbic writing for the piano, especially since Wong plays with much expressivity and a wide dynamic range, well captured by the MSR engineers in a powerful recording. But as I say, the downside is that the work doesn’t quite hang together as it should.
The weird epigrams of Visions Fugitives and the ripe late-Romantic gestures of Four Pieces seem to be more the pianist’s meat. In this later work, Désespoir really despairs, and Suggestion diabolique works itself up to Lisztian fury. Given the potent engineering, Op. 4 and Op. 22 make strong impressions here. Whether that’s enough of an incentive is your call. But if the Sonata No. 8 is your chief object, other recordings are to be preferred, including Richter’s famous pairing with the Piano Concerto No. 5 (DGG). For the budget-minded, Bernd Glemser’s recording with Sonatas Nos. 2 and 7 (Naxos) is a genuine bargain.
— Lee Passarella