Prokofiev: Visions Fugitives, op. 22

performed by Matti Raekallio, or below by Boris Berman

In every fleeting vision I see worlds, Filled with the fickle play of rainbows

Konstantin Balmont

(cover image by Joel Filipe)

It’s not ‘visions of fugitives.’

Prokofiev wrote his Visions Fugitives from around 1915 to 1917, and the work was officially premiered on April 15, 1918 in Petrograd. Wikipedia says that “They were written individually, many for specific friends of Prokofiev’s.”

The title of the piece is taken from a sonnet that Russian poet Konstantin Balmont wrote on the spot upon hearing Prokofiev play (at least portions of) Visions Fugitives. In total, there are 20 small pieces, the shortest of which (in Raekallio’s recording) is only 21 seconds, the longest (and final) piece just over three minutes, with most hovering around a minute long. Wikipedia says, then, that an average performance of the whole set is around 18-20 minutes but can differ widely due to the great room for expression and interpretation in these pieces.

There are twenty pieces, and as with some of the previous installments, this will be a flying survey. I’ll list them below, with some thoughts on each, but really, just go listen to these little morsels. Each one is over so quickly that the entire 18-20 minutes seems like not really that long at all, and then you can ponder on things like what this set as a whole accomplishes, or what sentiments or moods each one might evoke for you. Here we go:

  1. Lentamente – Is this Prokofiev, or like Ravel, maybe Debussy? This kind of unsure beginning, a reticent start, is like an ice cube melting and becoming a trickling flow of water. It sets the tone for most of the rest of this set, which is largely pensive and moody.
  2. Andante – That trickle gains momentum here, and as the bass rocks (mostly) gently back and forth, the upper voice splashes in the kind of color and spirit we’re more used to from Prokofiev.
  3. Allegretto – Is this the Scriabin of the fifth sonata? There’s something fragrant growing here, like flowers that bud, bloom, open up and then… are picked, or possibly more appropriately, decapitated.
  4. Animato – This is more like the Prokofiev we know, a dryer, more acerbic sound, which is also probably outstandingly difficult.
  5. Molto giocoso – This little thing is just a splash of color, maybe the punchline to a joke someone told, or a way to fill a moment of silence.
  6. Con eleganza – Does this sound like elegance to you? Maybe clarity, or a shimmer, pristineness, but it’s not what I conjure up when I think ‘elegance.’ Beautiful though.
  7. (Harp) Pittoresco – Yeah. Harp. It’s dreamy, and would be more serene if it didn’t remind me so much of the opening of the composer’s second piano concerto, which turns out to be anything but serene.
  8. Comodo – It’s pastoral, a walk through the park watching fallen leaves float by in a stream, perhaps the most tame, approachable of them all.
  9. Allegretto tranquillo – Does this sound tranquil to you? Maybe this gives us a little chance to stretch the brain and think about that quality in a different way.
  10. Ridiculosamente – Ridiculous? It doesn’t seem completely absurd, mostly like Prokofiev’s dark humor. I like.
  11. Con vivacita – Like a child playing in a stuffy Paris apartment, who gets tired of running around for long enough to take a very brief nap.
  12. Assai moderato – Like someone pretending, weakly, that there is nothing wrong. The ‘everything’s fine’ sentiment here isn’t convincing, and sure enough, the piece scurries off nervously.
  13. Allegretto – We’re back to the languid sentiment of the first installment, but have we gone anywhere in the set? Does this piece go somewhere else? Are we enjoying the atmosphere?
  14. Feroce – Yes, ferocious indeed, like a glimpse of the much later ‘war sonatas’ to come.
  15. Inquieto – Speaking of which, this marking may remind you of the seventh sonata. Do you not hear some similarity? It’s not ferocious, but unsettled, impatient.
  16. Dolente – Just brilliant! It’s dark and gloomy and rich, but not soggy.
  17. Poetico – Poetic? How about eerie?
  18. Con una dolce lentezza – ‘a sweet slowness,’ perhaps reminding us of no.’s 1 and 13 in the set, like one of Scriabin’s short poemes.
  19. Presto agitassimo e molto accentuato – Angular, pointed, some menace… and that ending!
  20. Lento irrealmente – irrealmente? If there were some peroration, a ‘thesis statement’ to defend, you’d think it would be here. This is, after all, at least in Raekallio’s reading, by far the longest of the set.

Is this a search of some kind. For what?

Or could we just be satisfied with these being sketches, little glimpses into the composer’s technical ability, inventiveness, pianistic prowess, and mood right then and there sitting wherever he was with friends, or by himself… fleeting thoughts and images. I’m perfectly okay with the latter.

I’m a little behind today with this article, but it’s still today. We have a few more people coming up this week who I’m excited to have on the blog again (I say that like I’m inviting guests to come visit in person or something), and we’re right around the corner from starting something a little (not entirely) different in August, so please stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.

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