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Review: Anne-Marie McDermott: PROKOFIEV Piano Sonatas (complete)... on BRIDGE

10.21.09
Anne-Marie McDermott
Fanfare Magazine

By Peter J. Rabinowitz

Anne-Marie McDermott is one of our great under-the-radar pianists. Although she’s appeared widely in an unusually varied repertoire (from Bach to Wuorinen, via Chausson and Beach), she’s never had the kind of press splash enjoyed by Kissin or Lang Lang. Nor has she been rewarded with the kind of long-term label support that Hyperion has given such contemporaries as Hamelin and Hough. In fact, this Prokofiev cycle was originally recorded in 1999 and 2003 for Arabesque, which never even issued the third CD. But McDermott stands up well against those with more prestige: everything I’ve heard from her up until now—most recently, her spiffy Gershwin (32:1) and her Beach/Smith CD (reviewed by Michael Cameron in 32:5)—has been excellent, and this Prokofiev collection is, if anything, better still.

What’s most striking, I suppose, is the variety of utterance. Even some of the best Prokofiev pianists (say, Valentine Lisitsa or Yaakov Kaman) can homogenize the surfaces in their pursuit of visceral excitement and overall effect. But, in part because of her magnificent touch, in part because of her unfailing interpretive intelligence, McDermott makes sure that the full range of Prokofiev’s discursive practice comes through, from the impressionistic dreaminess that opens the first movement of the Eighth, to the slightly manic wit that threatens the second movement of the Sixth, to the glower of the Fourth’s Adagio, to the quicksilver madcap of the Third, and to the tight motoric drive of the third of the Sarcasms.

Granted, while her technique is solid (no strain in the finale of the Seventh) and while her sound, where necessary, is bold, she doesn’t have the bone-crunching intensity of Argerich or the sheer concentration of Richter. But she more than compensates in her treatment of details, in her rhythmic resilience, in her scrupulous dynamics, and most of all in her exceptional sensitivity to the music’s narrative progress (the peaceful end of the Ninth, usually so perfunctory, seems a hard-won resolution in McDermott’s hands). Her darting account of the first movement of the Second—with its disorienting shifts in direction—makes even Gary Graffman’s famous recording seem slightly facile. This is, quite simply, playing of the highest order.

Want a sense of the scope of her imagination? Try some of the less popular music first: her kaleidoscopic account of the Fifth (revised version) or, even better, her richly dialogical performance of the usually pale Ninth, where her biting performance of the second movement contrasts especially dramatically with her subtly troubled reading of the Andante tranquillo. Neither of these sonatas is usually considered to represent Prokofiev at his most inspired, for good reason; but in McDermott’s committed performances, they seem nearly as vital as the more popular Second.

Those wanting to build up a mix-and-match collection of this repertoire can choose from the long discography of individual sonatas set down by Argerich, Gilels, Horowitz, Krainev, Leschenko, and Richter, to name but a few of the front-runners. If you’re looking for a package deal, though, this cycle takes its place with the Raekallio and the Chiu as the best ever recorded, well above the relatively plain recordings by Sandor, Nissman, and Boris Berman. The excellent engineering only makes the release that much more attractive. Strongest recommendation.