Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International
March 2020

Steven Osborne has demonstrated a real affinity for the music of Prokofiev, as well as that of some other composers. I reviewed his recordings of Visions fugitives and Sarcasms and, with Alina Ibragimova as violinist, the composer’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano, and Five Melodies (both Hyperion) which I praised highly. He continues to impress with these accounts of the three ‘War Sonatas’ Prokofiev composed during the Second World War. These three works represent the apex of Prokofiev’s solo piano music and have been recorded numerous times by illustrious pianists, including Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Denis Kozhukhin, and others. Osborne now joins their ranks as among the best in this repertoire.

Prokofiev composed the three sonatas almost simultaneously and, while they were written during the war, there is little that is discernibly reflective of that event. They even contain at times the composer’s sardonic humour. The initial theme of the Sonata No 6’s first movement, designated Allegro moderato, lingers long in the mind, though there is much variety in the movement with dramatic elements contrasting with more lyrical ones. The second movement is lighter in mood, a dance that could have come straight out of Romeo and Juliet, but does not actually quote the ballet. This delightful movement with its staccato chords leads into a wistful slow movement in waltz tempo with a theme that anticipates the second movement of the Sonata No 7, but with more dissonance. It has frequent key changes and a feeling of some remoteness, like a memory of an important event of the past. The finale then is full of urgency and virtuosity, but also with sections of calm and mystery. Osborne plays this music with élan and also raptness. As the movement approaches its conclusion, he accelerates and the work ends in a resounding blur.

The Seventh Sonata is undoubtedly the best known of the three and the most economical. Its first movement starts with a march-like theme that could reflect the war, if it were not quite so light in mood and jazzy. It contains a quieter, ruminating section before returning to the opening march. An Andante caloroso follows this movement and its ‘song without words’ is one of those hummable melodies that’s hard to forget. There is just enough dissonance to make it interesting and a more dramatic and powerful middle section that contrasts well with the first theme. It is important not to drag out this movement or sentimentalize it, as some pianists tend to do. Osborne sets a good tempo here, even if Martha Argerich’s (EMI) flows more. The sonata concludes with its famous toccata, marked Precipitato and Osborne does not disappoint with his precipitous tempo. Every note counts and the piano tone ravishes without becoming overly percussive. Syncopation contributes a jazzy flavour to this ebullient toccata, a movement that recalls one of the composer’s early piano works, his Op 11.

The Sonata No 8 offers a greater challenge to pianists than its predecessors, not by being any more virtuosic but with its deeper and more subtle emotions. More of the sonata is reflective and quiet with its long first movement—twice the length of the respective movements in the other two of this sonata trio. There are faster and more dramatic passages conveying some of the violence of the previous sonatas and a theme reminding me of a passage in the Third Piano Concerto before the tempo decreases and the movement ends enigmatically. The short second movement, like that of the Sonata No 7, is a simple, memorable song and quite a contrast to the first movement. Its theme is based on a minuet Prokofiev had planned to use in his Eugene Onegin and a good respite before the onslaught of the finale. According to Christina Guillaumier in her illuminating notes to the CD, the finale, marked Vivace, is ‘faintly reminiscent of Prokofiev’s earlier experiments with the tarantella,’ though that would not have occurred to me from listening to the piece. The music dances and Osborne takes it at quite a lick. He brings out the details and varies the dynamics accordingly. At times he is extremely powerful, but never harsh, and at others quietly mysterious and ruminative. The sonata becomes wilder and just builds until it ends with a bang. This stupendous performance, like the others on the disc, is well captured by Hyperion’s engineers. I cannot think of any pianist today who could surpass Steven Osborne in this music.

Hyperion’s production values are also up to their high standards. Guillaumier’s notes add much to the enjoyment of these accounts and the booklet’s cover, a reproduction of Marianne Werefkin’s City in Lithuania painting, is attractive even if it has little to do with the works or their period of composition.