Pianist Anna Gourari’s ECM debut – 2012’s Canto Oscuro, an album that channels the Baroque and its spirit reflecting darkly through the ages – earned praise far and wide. Gramophone declared her version of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne “one of the most riveting on record,” while The Absolute Sound judged the entire disc “devastating.” Visions fugitives, Gourari’s second ECM release, showcases the intense beauty of her sound in Prokofiev’s title work, a set of 20 “fleeting visions” whose moods swing wildly and evocatively. The album also features Medtner’s Fairy Tale in f minor (from his long series of skazki, or “tales”) and Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in b minor, which includes a Beethovenian opening movement as well as a touching, songful Largo.
Born in Kazan, Tartarstan, Gourari is a musician steeped in the venerable Russian piano school, with its technical verities and Old World glamour. The great pianist Alexis Weissenberg found her playing “almost mystical” when he was on the jury with Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Nelson Freire that deemed Gourari winner of the Clara Schumann Piano Competition in 1994.
With Visions fugitives, Gourari explores the ultra-dynamic, shape-shifting sound world of Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), whose rhythmic energy was declared “savage” by early U.S. critics but who was also one of the 20th century’s great masters of melody, as well as atmosphere. Beyond his nine important piano sonatas, the Russian wrote many shorter works for piano, prime among them his motoric Toccata, the Sarcasms and his set of Visions fugitives. Paul Griffiths, in the liner notes to Gourari’s album, writes:
The 20 pieces gathered in Visions fugitives are, in the original Russian form of the title, mimolyotnosti, the word coming from a poem by Konstantin Balmont that includes these lines: “I do not know wisdom – leave that to others – I only turn fleeting things [mimolyotnosti] into verse.” The French translation of mimolyotnosti as “visions fugitives” adds a visual metaphor, but this is present in the original poem, where the poet likens himself to a little cloud, shaping rainbows from ephemeral conditions of moisture and light. Unlike a rainbow, a poem has permanence, but Balmont’s choice of imagery suggests it must still yield an effect of ‘momentariness,’ such as Prokofiev must have wanted for these very short pieces. If qualities of unfolding nevertheless remain – motifs that are defined and developed, harmonic flow moving on the wheels of regular meter, forms in which an initial phrase is succeeded by a varied repeat, with or without a contrasting intervention, and arrival at a destination that clinches the piece or dissolves it – these are all in the dimensions of what would much later become known as “flash fiction.”
Prokofiev himself, in his recitals, seems never to have played the collection as a whole, and in his only recording, made in 1935, he chose just half the pieces. Perhaps he thought of the opus as like a book of poems, or stories – or in some cases diary entries, as with No. 19 or more certainly No. 5, which he noted at the time included “a peal of bells” for the wedding of a friend, Lida Karneyeva. The pieces also document his awareness of the adventurous piano music that had come out in the past few years – often on a brief scale – from Schoenberg, Scriabin, Debussy, Bartók and Ravel. Subject to these various impressions, and occasionally to quotidian events, the Visions fugitives also seem designed to be as different as possible: lyrical and sardonic, grotesque and calm, melancholy and boisterous, nostalgic and insistent.
Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) – an elder Russian contemporary of Prokofiev, but more of a kindred spirit to Rachmaninoff – composed a huge corpus of works for piano, including 14 piano sonatas and an extensive series of skazki, brief tales in music that feature some of his most original writing for the keyboard. Framing Medtner’s Fairy Tale in f minor (Op. 26, No. 3) – three minutes that suggest a dark nostalgia – Griffiths writes:
With Medtner, the miniature is complete in itself… He invented a personal genre in his skazki, of which he produced more than 30 in addition to the four of his Op. 26 of 1912. For some, he indicated the nature of the story with a secondary title: “Ophelia’s Song,” “Wood Goblin,” “Elves’ Tale.” Most, however, he left as tales without words, tales of musical figments – of melodies and harmonies, of rhythmic profiles and altered chords, of shapes and gestures and atmospheres… Three-quarters of his skazki are in the minor, often with a modal inflection – as in this case, where the main theme is in the Aeolian mode, or natural minor – to give a sense of “once upon a time.”
Chopin wrote his Piano Sonata No. 3 in b minor in 1844, while on the cusp of his mid-30s. In his album essay, Griffiths notes the almost heroic, Beethovenian thrust of the first movement; subsequently, the Polish composer’s Opus 58 seems to toggle between public and private domains – after that bold first movement comes a briefly glittering, skittering Scherzo; the slow movement is an aching Largo; and then there’s the finale that recaps the Beethovenian character of the opening. Singling out the profundities of the Largo, Griffiths writes that it tells “its own exquisite and elegant story… Whereas the slow movement of Chopin’s previous, B flat minor sonata was a funeral march, this one may be understood as a funeral song, with a melodic poignancy that justifies and even necessitates some extraordinary harmonic progressions.”
Gramophone has praised Gourari’s performances of such episodes in Chopin as marked by “such intimacy that it is as if she is playing for herself… Her expressive directness and unaffected simplicity are moving.”