Anna Gourari piano
Recorded October 2013, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
I do not know wisdom—leave that to others—
I only turn fugitive visions into verse.
In each fugitive vision I see worlds,
Full of the changing play of rainbows.
Don’t curse me, you wise ones. What are you to me?
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet, full of fire.
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet. Look: I’m floating.
–Konstantin Balmont, 1903
In 2012, pianist Anna Gourari made her ECM debut with Canto Oscuro, a diurnal recital of such imagination that it begged a sequel. Only Visions fugitives is, despite its modern vintage, more of a prequel, for it opens more of her heart than ever to the listener’s privilege. The title composition by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is his opus 22 and marks a sensitive turning point in the prolific Russian composer’s oeuvre. Written between 1915 and 1917, the clarity of its 20 miniatures is in full evidence. But as David Nice observes in his biography of Prokofiev, the Visions fugitives also reveals “a new and more disturbing vein of the dynamic malice found in the early piano pieces as well as a more elusive sadness,” and these Gourari elicits with her detailed touch.
Prokofiev seems never to have intended the Visions as a set (the composer himself played no more than a handful in one sitting), but in listening to them as such, one cannot help but notice what Paul Griffiths in his liner text rightly calls their “family resemblances.” And while the title connotes fleeting things, there is something unusually indelible about their impressions. Closer to linked verse than haiku, the suite coheres by virtue of its consistent intimacy. It is, of sorts, an anti-sonata endowed with illustrative prowess, each movement so perfectly flavored that it needs no side dishes: a veritable tapas tasting of thematic subjects, of which only two exceed the two-minute mark. The opening dichotomy sets a tone of blissful regret that, like a pile of shorn wool, is pulled and spun into workable thread. Internal variations work in such a way that each piece, marked only by its tempo, seems a reflection of the one that precedes and a predictor of the one that follows. You may find yourself drawing connections to other composers (No. 8, for example, marked “Comodo,” feels a bit like Satie), but the phenomenological presence of Prokofiev’s score is such that one need hardly reach far to find purchase in between the lines. Some, like Nos. 7 (Pittoresco) and 18 (Con una dolce lentezza), may be incredibly pretty, but resist the plunge into full-on impressionism. Others, like No. 4, 5, 9, 15, and 19 are virtuosic standouts, but speak in tongues of escape over flourish. And in the twentieth Gourari finds a contemplative doorway waiting for her.
At two minutes and forty-six seconds, the Fairy Tale in f minor by Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) may look like filler material in theory, but in practice it acts as a vibrant ligament at the program’s center. Composed in 1912 as part of Medtner’s opus 26, it is a prime example of his skazki, or “tales,” a genre of his own making. One may project any number of scenes onto its imaginary folk setting, but these ears detect a forest of seasons: the wind combing through trees in spring, the fragrant foliage of summer, the decay of autumn, and the whisper of snowfall in winter. With these transformations in mind, we turn lastly to Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and his opus 58 Sonata No. 3 in b minor of 1844. In the opening Allegro and subsequent Scherzo, Gourari is an artful dodger, the adept inhabitant of an otherwise empty castle. She walks through walls and transcends chambers as simply closing the eyes. She pushes through memories of pomp and circumstance, emerging from them trailing a single thread of transcendence, by which she stitches virtuosity to its shadow. The formidable Largo is a more brooding affair with a funereal quality but sheltering a hope realized in the triumphant Finale before burrowing into the reset of hibernation. Declamation, not proclamation.
Returning to Griffiths, who notes, “In integrating, however, Chopin also disintegrates,” we might lay the same claim about Gourari’s selections. This recital is a step inward, a dissolution of self into pure music that, once unleashed, takes on a life…and death…of its own.
(To hear samples of Visions fugitives, click here.)