GéNIA: Gabriel Prokofiev: Piano Book No. 1

It can't be easy being the progeny of a towering artist—just ask Ravi Coltrane, for instance, who must forever contend with the immense shadow cast by his legendary father, no matter how magnificent a musician Ravi becomes in his own right. Being the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel Prokofiev must no doubt confront his own share of comparisons, with listeners studying the composers' styles and listening for traces of the elder's in the younger's pieces. Gabriel's Piano Book No. 1 suggests that if there's one thing the two do share, it's a willingness to incorporate elements of both traditional compositional form and a bolder approach to harmony and texture that's less tied to tradition (the author of a Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra among other works, Gabriel has clearly kept his ear to the contemporary ground during his composing career). The Russian pianist GéNIA brings an impressive pedigree of her own to the project, as she can name Vladimir Horowitz as her great-grand-uncle (interestingly, too, it was Vladimir Horowitz who premiered Sergei Prokofiev's seventh piano sonata in 1945); like Gabriel, she is a pioneer of sorts, as during her career she has commissioned over twenty pieces for piano and electronics. The collaboration came about when Gabriel, having been exposed to GéNIA's playing, decided to write a book of piano pieces for her. The two approached the project with the shared aim of producing an intimate piano collection that would be connected to the classical tradition (composers as diverse as Chopin, Bach, Prokofiev, and Bartok) without being overly shackled by it either.

There's no question GéNIA's up to the challenge on technical grounds. The Russian virtuoso navigates the pieces' delicate and aggressive passages with ease, not to mention the ample stylistic contrasts that characterize the composer's material. The opening “Sketch” scampers, its mice-like movements and playfulness reminiscent of Debussy's “Golliwog's Cakewalk” from his 1908 Children's Corner. There's a rollicking swing and urgent thrust to “Tough Moves” that gives it an almost funky feel more associative with hip-hop than classical music per se. During “Fky House,” aggressive splashes appear alongside rhythmic bass clusters that seem to manifest some tangential relationship to boogie-woogie. But in addition to rhythm-oriented pieces (e.g., “Clock Watt”), there are others, such as “Entrance,” that are pensive, ruminative, and reflective. Six of the eleven pieces are over in less than three minutes, which gives them the feel of being sketches, and only one (“Clock Watt”) breaks the five-minute barrier. At thirty-seven minutes, it's thus a short album by CD standards—not that there's anything wrong with that—, which makes the album feel even more like a traditional ‘Piano Book'—a booklet containing notated pieces—brought to recorded life.

June 2010