International festival: CLASSICAL MUSIC Prokofiev: Complete Piano Sonatas Queen's Hall

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The Independent Culture
As part of the festival's Prokofiev focus, Alexander Toradze, pianist hero of Friday's Usher Hall concert, had the extraordinary idea of presenting his "Class of '97" - seven outstanding young Russian and Georgian pianists - in an epic three-and-a-half hour survey of the composer's massive output in the sonata form, including not only the nine published works, but also the Two Sonatines Op 54 and a 27-bar fragment of the unfinished 10th Sonata.

A marvellous opportunity, then - with a positively frightening array of pianistic talent on show - to get an overall sense of Prokofiev's creative development from his Op 1, dashed off at 18, to his valedictory Op 103 of 1947. There were times, though, when it seemed as if it might all be just too much for human strength to stand - and that merely as a listener: under the tumultuous onslaught of notes, one had visions of the piano collapsing or bursting into flames.

Yet a definite pattern emerges in Prokofiev's creative personality - a titanic struggle between opposing principles in life and art. And the sonatas record it all. A struggle, musically, between lyrical warmth and destructive, rhythmic, energy - between the dictates of fashion and the promptings of an innate musical personality; struggles with personal, emotional insecurity and public (political) paranoia; above all, the struggle to find a secure base that led to his return to the USSR, and the suspicion in which he has been held by many ever since. In the first four sonatas, one can hear the composer gradually emerging from the Rachmaninov- like rhapsodisings of Op 1: by No 4, the dark, manic element has entered. Sonata No 5, with its somewhat lighter air and avowed "Russianism", reflects Prokofiev's reaction to Stravinsky's "back-to-basics" movement, whereas the trilogy of massive, heroic works, Nos 6, 7 and 8, are a direct result of his return to Soviet Russia, his decision to write "big" pieces, and the apocalyptic wartime context. The haunting No 9 contains an unmistakable note of nostalgia and regret - for a lost youth, lost ideals, for wrong decisions taken in life?

In terms of performance, this was an amazing, if exhausting, afternoon. It would be invidious to try to compare such individual pianists, each in their own way already a most accomplished artist. But it was intriguing to observe the interplay between their different personalities and approaches in the very varied pieces they played. If Ivana Bukvich, Vakhtang Kodanshvili, Alexander Korsantiya, Tea Lomaridze, Maxim Mogilevsky, Svetlana Smolina and George Vatchnadze can be said to represent the future of Russian music, then surely we have nothing to fear for the great musical traditon of that remarkable country.