Music from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, War and Peace; Pushkin Waltz in C sharp minor (arr. Babayan)
Martha Argerich, Sergei Babayan (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon 479 9854 60:12 mins
This surprising compendium highlights Prokofiev’s work on top-notch Shakespeare and Pushkin projects in the mid-1930s, with a nod forwards to his Tolstoy opera War and Peace and a Pushkin Waltz modelled on Chopin’s C sharp minor Prelude. Equally surprisingly, Sergei Babayan’s transcriptions for two pianos don’t include the themes which will be familiar to any pianist who knows Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata – the Minuet from Tatyana’s name-day party in Eugene Onegin which became the second movement of that sonata, and the meeting of Hermann and Lisa in The Queen of Spades intensifying the poignancy of the sonata’s opening. Instead we have a lighter divertissement leading up to the starstruck waltz of Natasha and Andrey in the opera, framed by the drama of the ghost music from Hamlet and the most successful arrangement of all, the idée fixe from The Queen of Spades which sounds in this performance like another toccata to match Prokofiev’s earliest specimen in the genre.
Argerich and Babayan excel at the hard-hitting stuff, which also includes the opening and closing of Babayan’s idiosyncratic Romeo and Juliet sequence. The percussive chords at the beginning make a creative virtue out of mere thuds in the original; they return before ‘The Death of Tybalt’. Alongside the mercurial magic there are some eccentric speeds in some of the numbers which work in context; of the two arrangements from the music featuring mandolins in the ballet, the first doesn’t sound anything like as brilliant, but the second is a beautiful transformation. Hit and miss in the choices, then, but never in the playing.