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Prokofiev: Romeo And Juliet / Stanislav Khristenko

Release Date: 10/04/2019
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30114
Composer:  Sergei Prokofiev Performer:  Stanislav Khristenko

Sergei Prokofiev’s visceral romanticism is on display in music written for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The composer’s own arrangement for piano matches his brilliant orchestration. The virtuoso Stanislav Khristenko pairs these works with Prokofiev’s equally vibrant Op. 12 Pieces for Piano.

R E V I E W S:

Ukrainian-American pianist Stanislav Khristenko (b. 1984 in Kharkov) has won numerous high prizes in major international piano competitions, including first prizes at the Cleveland Competition and Maria Canals Competition, as well as fourth prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition – all of these in 2013. He has performed at many prestigious concert venues across the globe, including at Carnegie Hall, and has
Read more recently taken up conducting, appearing with orchestras across Europe and the United States. As a pianist, he is a veteran of the recording studio, having made discs for Oehms Classics, Toccata Classics and Naxos. His first CD for Steinway & Sons, Fantasies, was issued in 2014 and contained works by Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Zemlinsky. His new recording here pairs the sometimes sassy early Prokofiev with late and very mature Prokofiev. Both sets offer considerable challenges to the performer, especially from an interpretive perspective.

The Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet come first. There are two outstanding characteristics about Khristenko's playing here—his clarity of textures and very subtle use of rubato. Try Masks (No. 5) and notice how transparent the flow of notes is throughout, how the percussive rhythm never intrudes on the main line, as happens in so many other accounts of this piece. Take note also of how he deftly adds to the playful character of the music by inserting a bit of hesitation in the glissando-like upward runs that come at the end of the main theme. In the opening piece, Folk Dance, he very subtly captures the festive mood, again with his fine sense for clarity, exhibiting especially subtle dynamics. The famous Montagues and Capulets (No. 6) can sound like a thumping austere march in the wrong hands. Here Khristenko balances the conflicting elements of this dark music most convincingly, as rhythms have bite but not weighty excess, and the theme a determined grimness in its stately demeanour.

He plays the Dance of the Girls with Lilies (No. 9) with a slightly tottering rhythm and less legato than most other pianists, giving the music a bit of a mechanical quality in its gait. Though it might seem that approach could sabotage the piece in some way, it doesn't in the least, imparting a quite hypnotic and charming effect, making you hear the music in a somewhat different way. In the crucial final piece, Romeo and Juliet before Parting, Khristenko incarnates Prokofiev's lush lyricism so well that it is perhaps better than anyone else. Most pianists play the love theme that occurs about midway through too fast, apparently reading the “animato” marking as accelerando or as a decided speed-up of tempo. As I mentioned in a previous review (referenced below) Prokofiev himself, when conducting the orchestral counterpart of this music on a recording, did not quicken his pace. Anyway, Khristenko plays this piece about as well as I've ever heard it, capping this utterly splendid account of the Romeo pieces.

He's just as convincing in the early set contained in this disc. The opening March is one of Prokofiev's most catchy marches: it has origins that go back to the composer's mid-teens yet sounds very sophisticated and mature. Khristenko captures the essence of this infectious work, again with superb dynamics and his ability to clarify textures. The ensuing pieces are consistently played well, the “Harp” Prelude (No. 7) rendered with all the elegance and playfulness needed to charm the ear. This, along with the Montagues and Capulets from Romeo, has countless versions on YouTube, many by student performers who can meet the generally modest technical demands. The last three pieces come across most effectively, the Allemande especially so. This masterly work is mischievous and audacious, deliberately oafish and deftly humorous, in the end simply clever and very catchy, both thematically and rhythmically. It serves as an example of the nose-thumbing enfant terrible image that the young Prokofiev seemed eager to cultivate. Again, this set is a complete success.

Earlier this year I reviewed Dzmitry Ulasiuk playing the Romeo and Juliet pieces on a Centaur CD here and considered his set among the finest available, though with significant competition from Bernd Glemser (Naxos), Boris Berman (Chandos) and Lazar Berman (DG), the latter, however, eliminating the first piece. I also mentioned Steven De Groote (Finlandia, later on Apex), whose set is now apparently unavailable. Now, I give the edge to Khristenko over all the competition. In the Op. 12 set, recordings have been comparatively thin. Frederic Chiu (Harmonia Mundi) and Georgy Sandor (Vox) turned in strong accounts of these pieces in their complete Prokofiev surveys (Sandor's set lacked all transcriptions), but I'll take Khristenko over them as well. Steinway's sound reproduction is first rate. Khristenko impresses me as someone who would offer excellent performances of Prokofiev's nine sonatas. Maybe Steinway would consider such a project, despite the heavy competition. Anyway, I highly recommend this disc to anyone interested in this splendid Prokofiev music.

-- Robert Cummings, MusicWeb International

Mr. Khristenko is an acclaimed pianist holding prizes from over 30 competitions; recently, he has also taken up conducting. His approach from Prokofieff is one I prefer; he reveals the music’s dry wit without rubbing our noses in it, and he responds to the music’s abundant opportunities for touching expression and lyricism. His technical skills are readily apparent in ‘Juliet as a Young Girl’ and the ‘Rigaudon’ (from (the 10 Pieces). The ‘Legende’ (also from 10 Pieces) shows his fine control over tone color. The sound is quite clear but could be warmer.

-- American Record Guide

Since his 2013 victory in the Cleveland International Piano Competition, Stanislav Khristenko has been amassing a strong online profile through live performance videos and a varied stream of CD releases ranging from Soler and Schumann to Ernst Krenek. Prokofiev occupies Khristenko’s second Steinway & Sons disc.

In the 10 pieces that the composer arranged from Romeo and Juliet, Khristenko channels his robust sonority and expert technique towards balletic ends. For example, he resists the understandable temptation to sprint through ‘Juliet as a Young Girl’ or the ‘Mercutio’ movement, keeping the fast tempos within reasonably danceable parameters. By contrast, he shifts the ‘Friar Laurence’ movement’s commonly introspective landscape towards what one might consider ‘walking meditation’.

While his crisply dry articulation seems more appropriate than, say, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s wilting legato in ‘Dance of the Girls with Lilies’, his fussy tempo adjustments get in the way. But Khristenko’s fluidity, directness and long-lined control engender a natural unfolding build in the long final movement.

His pianistic finesse and musical intelligence click more decisively in the Op 12 group, which are essentially character pieces. The opening March sports a well-grounded rhythmic snap and impressively even scales, while the pianist humorously yet tastefully milks the Gavotte’s left-hand grace notes. The Mazurka’s idiocyncratic, closely voiced chords slither in and out of one another through finger legato alone. Khristenko also balances the Capriccio’s busy counterpoint so that the left and right hands converse rather than compete, and evokes a caustically lilting ‘merry-go-round’ in the concluding Scherzo.

In short, Prokofiev’s Op 12 and Op 75 complement each other well as a CD coupling, especially in Khristenko’s fine performances, all expertly mastered from Steinway Spirio High Definition files.

-- Jed Distler, Gramophone

This disc encompasses two of the three most popular works Prokofiev wrote for piano solo, aside from a handful of the nine sonatas. The third would be the Visions fugitives, 20 in number, from 1917. The talented Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko follows in a long line of Soviet and Russian pianists for whom this is standard repertoire, although few Western pianists have taken up any of the three collections. Despite his close relationship with Prokofiev, Sviatoslav Richter apparently didn’t perform the Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet. We have nothing on disc, at least. I can’t read his mind, but perhaps Richter’s reluctance was due to the score being an arrangement rather than an original piano work.

Circumstances probably brought the Ten Pieces about. Prokofiev made these arrangements in 1936 during the protracted and painful time it took before his ballet was eventually staged. In an atmosphere of fear and reprisal that augmented the usual Soviet bureaucratic blocks, it was four years before Romeo and Juliet appeared on a Russian stage in 1940. (The only good thing to come out of this long delay was that officials higher up made Prokofiev change his original happy ending.)

Among older recordings pride of place goes to the young Vladimir Ashkenazy in the 1960s (Decca download), who set the standard for evoking the exuberance, color, and rhythmic vivacity of the ballet. I haven’t heard anyone better since Ashkenazy, although in Fanfare 42:6 I praised the Belarusian pianist Dzmitry Ulasiuk for coming close (Centaur). It is evident from the first few minutes of this new account by Khristenko that another superb choice is at hand. In a gentle number like “Juliet as a Young Girl,” he finds the requisite innocence in the sparkling runs, but there are sharp accents inserted on the fly that bespeak excellent control of touch. The effect of ballet is conveyed here by the small hesitations a dancer would make to express Juliet’s shyness and fragility.

You feel the personality of each section quite specifically. With most pianists “Masques” is stiffly repetitive in keeping with the formal court dance on stage, but Khristenko has the dancers’ feet stamp here and there, expressive of the danger Romeo has risked by coming unannounced to the Capulet ball. Without exaggeration Khristenko expresses the simmering hatred in “Montagues and Capulets.” The last and most moving of the Ten Pieces is the final one, “Romeo and Juliet before Parting.” Here only I think Khristenko takes a misstep. By delivering the music with a full-throated piano tone, in imitation of the soaring orchestra, he misses some of the poignancy that is essential in the scene.

The Ten Pieces for Piano, op. 12, display Prokofiev’s taste for saving and reusing his previous sketches and incidental pieces d’occasion. Between 1906 and 1914 he issued a series of keyboard potpourris as Four Études, op. 2, Four Pieces, op. 3, a second set of Four Pieces, op. 4, and the five Sarcasms for piano, op. 17. Student gleanings are included, but Prokofiev was a brilliant student. The Ten Pieces rank as the most popular of these collections in Russia. They were composed individually between 1906 and 1913.

As to the character of these miniatures, some are pastiche of old dance forms (Gavotte, Rigadon, Allemande) or examples of familiar piano genres (Mazurka, Caprice, Prelude). I must confess that the entire set has never caught my fancy. We hear the signature percussive Prokofiev in the opening “Marche” and his nostalgic lyrical style in “Legends,” but they feel like examples rather than inspirations.

I wish I could say that Khristenko illuminated these pieces for me, but he attacks them rather too head-on. To hear more nuance, wit, and irony one can turn to György Sándor on Vox, who realizes that the music needs more imagination than we get here. Despite the excellence of Khristenko’s Romeo and Juliet, his nearest rival, Ulasiuk, has a better pairing in Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux, op. 33. That’s not enough, however, to keep me from recommending the present disc, which at its best is quite impressive. 

-- Huntley Dent, Fanfare

"These are exceptionally confident and sunny performances, notable for their tight rhythms (listen to the sharply defined cross-currents in the third of the op. 12 Pieces), their canny articulation, their crunchy dissonances, their sparkling textures, and their unfailing clarity of utterance. ...this is masterful playing...The sound is first-rate."

Peter J. Rabinowitz, Fanfare Read less