Review: Jalbert’s proficiency with Prokofiev powerfully on display

David Jalbert

It was all aboard the Prokofiev Express Sunday afternoon at Tabaret Hall, as pianist David Jalbert presented the last instalment in his Prokofiev sonata cycle.

The University of Ottawa piano professor has established himself in recent years as a Prokofiev specialist, and certainly Jalbert’s balanced portfolio of colossal technique, kaleidoscopic sound, intellectual acumen and rigorous preparation make him well-suited to the Soviet giant’s music. Jalbert’s recent recording for the ATMA label of solo piano transcriptions of ballet music by Prokofiev and Stravinsky won several Prix Opus in Quebec, and was nominated for a JUNO this year.

For the final recital in a series he started last year, Jalbert performed the Ninth, Third, Fourth and Seventh sonatas, in that order, building from the most tranquil to the most agitated.

Prokofiev wrote his ninth and last sonata in 1947. Jalbert brought out the work’s post-war serenity with opulent brush-strokes of colour and exquisite clarity in the voicing. The last movement had plenty of incisive bite — Jalbert’s years of living intimately with ballet scores has given his sense of rhythm a taut, muscular snap.

After a cold, sightly rushed start, the single movement of the Third Sonata settled into a crisp groove, brimming with nervous, youthful energy and optimism. In the final section, Jalbert gave the triplets and skipping dotted rhythms a light varnish of French elegance, although I found his pedalling a little opaque for Tabaret’s extreme reverb.

Jalbert declared the Fourth to be his personal favourite of all Prokofiev’s sonatas. The first movement was intricately articulated, fluid and darkly mysterious. Jalbert’s playing in the Andante had an expansive, starry, nebulous quality, while the final Allegro sparkled with wit and a sense of play.

The recital ended with the perennially programmed Seventh. Jalbert admitted to the audience that he had long avoided this notorious knuckle-buster, the best known of all Prokofiev’s sonatas, precisely because it’s so popular.

But when a pianist combines virtuosity with interpretive intelligence, even a literal war-horse like the Seventh becomes elevated. The ominous sabre-rattling of the first movement shifted to a broad, deliberately oppressive orchestral palette in the Andante. The last movement became a merciless juggernaut in Jalbert’s hands, steamrolling along with ferocious power and speed — but never sacrificing precision — to the cataclysmic final octaves.

Jalbert takes this program to Montreal’s Chapelle Historique du Bon Pasteur on April 14.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.