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The First Chapter – 8:34
The Second Chapter – 8:09
The Third Chapter – 4:07
The Final Chapter – 7:26
Maya Fridman: http://mayafridman.com
Artem Belogurov: http://www.artembelogurovmusic.com
Bastiaan de Zwitser: https://www.bastiaan.com
The Fiery Angel – A fiery presentation
A review by: Jeroen van Luiken-Bakker
On the 4th of February I journeyed, with my mother, towards an (for me) unknown music temple (called Splendor) in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) for a very special late afternoon performance of The Fiery Angel by Prokofiev as arranged (and reduced) by Maya Fridman for violoncello and piano. Splendor* is a music temple for multiple reasons besides the obvious, that is a concert hall, albeit a smaller one by comparison to the gigantic Concert Gebouw, it is special in that it was founded and is maintained and managed by musicians and composers throughout all its aspects. For a (relatively small) fee artists can participate and audiences can support this wonderful initiative, a true temple of music in a modern world. Don’t allow your eyes to deceive your ears, it is a wonderful building and the great hall in which the concert took place was very nice. It had a slanted roof which resembles those seen in older buildings such as churches, and clearly elements of it were restored with care.
The work is to be performed by Ms. Fridman herself and Mr. Belogurov. Both Artem Belogurov (piano) and Maya Fridman (violoncello) received a Cum Laude at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. Ms. Fridman received hers for this The Fiery Angel arrangement which heightens the expectations.
Now no-one could tell the story of The Fiery Angel (Огненный ангел) (published in 1907-1908) as Valery Bryusov would and Prokofiev did create a masterpiece with his (at least at the initial reception) underappreciated opera (finished in 1927 but only fully premiered in 1955). Now Maya Fridman added to that with her beautiful arrangement of the opera reduced for violoncello and piano (and, I might add, optional percussion). Brendon Heist said about the arrangement (in the accompanying cd booklet, which is an underappreciated luxury these days) “… it captures the story of the novel and tells it by using only two instruments without ever missing a detail or rendering it too compact.”
The piano used on both the recording and the presentation concert was built in 1880 by the Erard piano builders in Paris. At the beginning of the concert, before we even had seen the musicians, Mr. Frits Janmaat (custodian of the piano) was called upon to tell the attendees a few details about the history of this particular piano, such as it was built in Paris for a Dutch costumer in Amsterdam, it was played by great composers including Mahler and Diepenbrock. The piano was upgraded several times and later restored, it now holds it 1910 splendour. One of its unique qualities is the way the strings are strung straight. According to Belogurov the choice to use a 19th century (or period) instrument came naturally, “… pianos had a more transparent and lighter sound, more colour differences between registers, and were quicker to respond to the touch than the concert grands of today.”
The concert itself started with what I now believe was a piece by Erkki-Sven Tüür, for violoncello and piano, its name and composer would have remained unbeknownst to me had I not but after the concert seen a piece of sheet music on the piano called Dedication with the name of the afore mentioned composer on it which made me believe that this was the piece that opened the concert. The opening piece itself required special and various performing techniques which include the scraping of a coin along the strings of the piano and the flautato (or flute) effect on the violoncello, the latter of which creates the effect of a flute-like sound from the violoncello.
After the performance a lengthy applause of recognition of great talent rose from the sixty or so attendees of the presentation. After which the artists, Maya Fridman (violoncello) and Artem Belogurov (piano), made way for a witness (Bastiaan de Zwitser as the character Ruprecht) to the life and times of Renata, and he told the attendees how he first met her in a tavern, and of how she told him of her love for the angel Madiel and that he had abandoned her and how she found him in the personification of Count Heinrich von Otterheim and lived with him for a year. Then the witness spoke of how he joined her on her journey to find Heinrich. In desperation they resort to magic. During which they experience a strange knocking on the walls. Later Renata sees Heinrich, but he rejects her, in her desperation she makes him (Ruprecht) challenge Heinrich to a duel, which she later regrets. Then Ruprecht tells of her growing love for him after he got wounded during the duel. When Renata seeks atonement in the Convent of Saint Ulf the Mother Superior askes the Inquisitor to investigate Renata’s claims about her angel. He sends her to be burned at the stake for her sinful relations to the Devil.
After the story was told by Ruprecht (Bastiaan de Zwitser) the concert took off. In her essay (which is available online°) Ms. Fridman states in her introduction that the “… challenge was to make the material of the opera comprehensible even without language, and nevertheless preserve its dramaturgy. … in which the dialogues of the voices and the multicolour of the orchestra would be naturally recognizable in the cello and piano parts.” Now it is true that I have not heard the full opera, I have heard sections (or perhaps rather fragments) of it so my opinion is not based on the source material but the opera is to me one of those pieces that remains of the wishlist for further exploration.
The first movement of Ms. Fridmans arrangement starts with a short powerful statement followed by a moment to allow the piano to make its own appearance apparent. What follows is a play of leitmotivs yearning for the attention of the listener which at first glance may appear chaotic but after a few moments into the piece one is sucked right into it. If you close your eyes one almost floats daydreaming into the music. Like a wave on the beach it comes and goes and every time leaves something behind in your mind’s ears. The attendees listen almost breathless to what happens. The balance of the piano and the violoncello is wonderful, the brightness and clarity of the piano set against the emotional and evocative timbers of the violoncello is best heard in this movement. The attendees see a violoncellist growing emotionally in her playing as if becoming part of the story, not as Renata, but as the means by which the story and the emotions are told. Her emotional expression both physically and instrumentally grow more and more as the movements follow each other. Mr. Belogurov plays the piano with the fiery spirit of the title, which in the second and third movements is even more apparent. This first movement functions, for mostly, as a way of introducing the themes of the main characters and staging the relation between them.
The second movement picks up with the scene of the Fortune-teller. The movement opens with the excitement of the encounter and then further develops the characters and their struggles, the piece builds up to a climax with a beautiful almost reflective aftermath only to encounter invisible forces knocking on the walls anticipating the arrival of Count Heinrich by Renata and Ruprecht, but he is not there. Ms. Fridman states in her essay that “the bottom of the grand piano hit by a gong beater provides enough resemblance to the mysterious knocks on the wall, unless performers will find another creative solution.” I know not what was done in the recording itself but during the performance a hidden percussionist (for lack of another word) stood behind the audience, though I (now several hours afterwards) can’t clearly remember the direction of the knocks however it is my firm believe he was responsible for them. I have to say that no matter how it was achieved it was an experience enrichment to (apparently) hear the knocking from elsewhere in the room which creates a great sense of atmosphere especially to those who know of the story.
Without time to contemplate on the knockings the story moves forward, in the third movement Renata has become desperate because her angel in the guise of Count Heinrich did not appear in their attempt at magic. This movement is clearly the shortest of the four movements. The piano seems more apparent in this movement than in any other, though there never is an imbalance. From my position in the audience I could not very well observe Mr. Belogurov at the piano. But it seems to me it was here that he was at his most comfortable, the playing seems far more ‘lively’ and relaxed than on the recording. Perhaps it is the high tempo in which this movements repetitive themes (ostinato) are played or perhaps it was the ecstasy of the performance. Here are laid the foundations for the climax of the fourth movement, says Ms. Fridman in her essay.
Movement four starts with a soft violoncello when the piano comes it becomes a dreamily serene scene, building with interchanging slower and faster passages towards an untimely climax for Renata. The listener who still has his eyes closed will soar on the melodies but all of a sudden would be clearly awake when the climax is reached with the sounding of a sudden gong. In the live performance it woke me from the daydream state in which I let my mind wander through the beautiful melodies. My only regret is that it ended so soon, because shortly after the attendees rose in a loud applause, myself included of course, which was very well deserved by the two outstanding performers.
It is my personal opinion that the arrangement c.q. reduction of The Fiery Angel (composed by Prokofiev) by Ms. Maya Fridman is truly wonderful and one of which I hope will flourish among her peer violoncellists (and pianists) and wander its way in to the hearts, and ears, of a diverse audience who will, through this work, discover Prokofiev anew.
Two editions of the recording of this piece exist, a ‘regular’ edition and ‘special’ edition. The special edition contains an extra book with photographs and additional background information and a summary of the story, far more expanded than I’d summarized above. The ‘special’ edition is a nice extra touch to the experience of this live performance and a great asset for collectors and interestees. If it will add to your personal listening experience I cannot say, however I highly recommend it. The album itself lasts, like the concert, just less than 30 minutes, but it is a wonderful experience, one that could bring the grandiose, the fantastic and even the extravaganza of the (or for that matter any) opera into your livingroom.
trptk is label that redefines the quality of recording music, few are those in the world today. High quality recording equipment is used, some of it custom build, and of renowned high-end brands**. This care is resounded in their productions and those are held to high standards.
The violoncello sound lively and dynamic on the recording, the full range of the instrument can be heard, and details are well represented. The piano, which as is said before, is a period instrument sounds fantastic. It may not sound as ‘grand’ as a modern concert grand piano but it has colour and spirit, it is fiercely and passionately played by Mr. Belogurov. The absolute high light of the possibilities of recording must be said to be present and noticeable in the final climax of the fourth movement, the gong. It is a brief moment but your sound system, if capable, will show you all that trptk recordings has to offer you in just that one moment°°.
* See www.splendoramsterdam.com for more information.
° Some information that I used throughout this review came from the essay Ms. Fridman wrote, which is available online at: https://www.conservatoriumvanamsterdam.nl/lichting/2016/student/maya-fridman/ (See under downloads).
** Material used:
**.a Equipment used for recording this album, stated as follows:
Microphones: Sonodore, RCM-402, BLM-21, MPM-71, Preamplifier MPB-508
Cables: Furutech, LineFlux XLR, NanoFlux speaker, NanoFlux NCF
AD/DA conversion: Merging Technologies Horus
Headphones: Audeze LCD-MX4, amplifiers Questyle CMA-800r
Loudspeakers: Kef Blade Two
Amplifiers: Hegel H30
**.b My personal used sound system for playback of the album:
CD: Krell KPS30i
Preamplifier: Krell (KRC)
Amplifier: Krell (KAV300i)
Cables: Transparent (Plus), NordOst (Blue Heaven)
Speakers: Wilson Audio (Watt/Puppy 5.1)
°° If you further wish to explore the music of Ms. Fridman and/or your sound system than I highly recommend the trptk ‘Red Velvet’ album.