Norman Stinchcombe reviews two new CDs with Russian connections


PROKOFIEV WAR SONATAS: Steven Osborne (Hyperion CDA 68298) ★★★★★

Prokofiev composed his piano sonatas Nos 6, 7 and 8 between 1939 and 1944 and their anger and ferocity reflect the events of what Russians call "The Great Patriotic War". That Prokofiev, who made his reputation as a keyboard virtuoso, premiered the sixth and left its successors to Richter and Gilels indicates the exalted level of technique they require. There can be no compromises, fudges or smudges. The concluding Precipitato movement of the seventh batters soloist and listener alike. Steven Osborne's fiery and supremely articulate performance matches the young Ashkenazy's legendary 1967 recording (Decca-deleted) – and is even faster. There are also moments of nostalgic tenderness such as eighth sonata's andante second movement, a delicately tripping minuet marked sognando, which is suitably dreamy under Osborne's tender hands. The sonatas were recorded in an airy church acoustic which tames their aural relentlessness. Want all three sonatas? Osborne's recording is an unqualified recommendation.

Norman Stinchcombe

THE RUSSIAN CONNECTION: Alder & Middleton (Chandos CHAN 20153) ★★★★★

The Russian connection of the title is in soprano Louise Alder's family history as she tells us in a fascinating booklet note, complete with photographs. From the Crimean War to World War II her maternal ancestors were British merchants based in Odessa and becoming multilingual in the polyglot port. That cross cultural connection is evident in many of the songs Alder sings: Tchaikovsky's Six Melodies in French; Sibelius, whose mother-tongue was Swedish, composing music for poems in his adopted Finnish; the Russian-born Medtner setting German texts and Britten translating Pushkin poems word-by-word using a Russian dictionary for The Poet's Echo. Alder combines a satisfyingly warm and pure tone with versatility, both linguistic and stylistic, always avoiding a one-fits-all approach to the diverse repertoire of thirty short songs. Joseph Middleton partners her with equal finesse – some of Rachmaninov's piano parts require a virtuoso's touch. The Potton Hall recording is top notch.

Norman Stinchcombe

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