Maya Fridman: Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with hardrock attitude

Abandoned Building. Toned Image, cd-cover The Fiery Angel.

The Russian-Dutch Maya Fridman (Moscow, 1989) plays classical and contemporary music as well as rock, jazz, folk and flamenco. Communication with the audience is her most important goal, so why limit herself to a particular style or genre? The website of the Dutch Cello Biennale rightly describes her as a ‘musical centipede’. In 2016 she was much lauded for her contribution to the music theatre production The Master & Margarita.

Recently she was selected as a finalist for the Dutch Classical Talent Award 2018-19. At Gaudeamus, Foundation for Contemporary Music, she is ‘music pioneer in residence’. As such she played and sang the premiere of Canti d’inizio e fine by Maxim Shalygin last April. The Ukrainian-Dutch composer wrote this Holocaust-inspired composition especially for her.

Fridman once more shows her versatility on her latest cd, The Fiery Angel, for cello and piano. The title refers to Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel that he based on the novel of the same name by Valeri Bryusov. In five acts we follow the fate of the young Renata. As a child she fell in love with the ‘fiery angel’ Madiel, whom she thinks to recognize in Count Heinrich. After a passionate relationship Heinrich abandons her, after which Renata is tormented by demons. Knight Ruprecht tries in vain to save her; eventually she dies at the stake.

Reducing over two hours of music for orchestra and soloists to a version for cello and piano seems quite an unfeasible enterprise. Fridman acknowledges this in the cd booklet. ‘While working on the first part, it still felt like an impossible task.’ She felt trapped in the ‘delirium of Renata’, which prevented her from thinking clearly. But as time went on, the music was so compelling that she completed its arrangement like a madwoman. ‘It seemed as if the radiant image of the angel was fleeting from my hands, just as in Renata’s case’, she writes.

For Fridman, the essence of the story lies in the fusion of ecstasy and suffering. By her death at the stake, Renata sacrifices her own being in order to unite with the angel. Fridman has striven to capture this theme in her arrangement. ‘This music requires dissolution to exist, and faith to surrender. It is the celebration of the Symbolists’ idea that physical reality is nothing nut a distorted echo of another realm.’ High-flown words that Dutch people are wary of, but which are self-evident to Russians.

Fridman reduced the original opera to just under half an hour of music. In four ‘chapters’ she closely follows the original story. The dedication with which she shapes Renata’s obsession sparks from every note. Aggressive, percussive sounds depict her internal ordeal; lyrical, more reflective passages express her longing for love. Fridman plays with a hardrock attitude,  at times she seems to literally wish to shatter her cello. On the gothic cd-cover she poses in a black leather suit, like an angel with wings of fire.

Chapter I opens with strongly accentuated strokes of the cello and boisterous piano chords: the fiery angel knocks at the door. Renata’s anxiety is reflected in shaky flageolets and hesitant piano notes. Sultry piano chords and gently flowing lines of the cello capture the emerging love between her and Ruprecht. However, the idyll is soon disturbed by motoric rhythms and furious strokes of the bow on the cello.

When Ruprecht and Renata go in search of Heinrich, jumpy, expectant solo cello passages alternate with impressionistic piano tinkling and black despair. A loud knock on the body of the cello makes one’s hair stand on end: Heinrich does not (yet) show himself, but ominously makes himself heard. In chapter III he rejects Renata once more, whereupon she asks Ruprecht to kill him in a duel. Angry strokes and repeated, bouncing double stops of the cello are accompanied by an orgy of battering piano sounds.

In the fourth and last movement, Renata seeks refuge in a monastery. Melancholic sighing sounds from the cello and rippling piano runs create the illusion of regained peace. But instead of having been cured, Renata infects the nuns with her delusions. Fridman creates frightening whistling tones, makes her instrument sound like an accordion, and dances a short tango. A series of furious figurations of both instruments is suddenly smothered in a loud, droning cymbal: Renata ends up in the fire.

Fridman and her pianist Artem Belogurov cannot be accused of coquetry. They both play as if their lives depend on it. That Fridman’s intonation sometimes falls prey to her passionate performance is of no real consequence. Like Rostropovich she puts eloquence above perfection.

In the upcoming Gaudeamus Music Week she will present Me, Peer Gynt, a cross-disciplinary production she developed together with pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama. Something to look out for.

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