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Maya Fridman: Prokofiev's Fire Angel with hard rock attitude

The Russian-Dutch Maya Fridman (Moscow, 1989) plays classical and contemporary music as well as rock, jazz, folk and flamenco. Communication with the public is now her main pursuit. So why limit yourself to a particular style or genre? The Cello Biennale website rightly describes her as a 'musical jack-of-all-trades'. She scored highly at this festival in 2016 in the musical theatre production The Master and Margarita.

She was recently 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 part of this, she played and sang the premiere of Canti d'inizio e fine by Maxim Shalygin. The Ukrainian composer wrote this Holocaust-inspired composition especially for her.


Fridman once again illustrates her versatility on her latest CD, The Fiery Angel for cello and piano. The title refers to The Fire Angel by Prokofiev, who based his opera on Valeri Bryusov's novel of the same name. In five acts, we follow the fortunes of young Renata. As a child, she fell in love with the "angel of fire" Madiel, whom she thinks she recognises in Count Heinrich. After a passionate relationship, he abandons her, after which Renata is tormented by demons. Knight Ruprecht tries in vain to save her; she eventually dies at the stake.

Adapting over two hours of music for orchestra and soloists for cello and piano seems an impossible task. Fridman acknowledges this in the CD booklet. 'As I worked on the first movement, it still felt like an unachievable task.' She felt trapped in Renata's 'delirium', which prevented her from thinking clearly. But gradually the music forced itself on her so much that she completed her arrangement like a man possessed. 'It seemed as if the radiant image of the angel flowed out of my hands, just as it did with Renata.'

Ecstasy through self-destruction

For Fridman, the essence of the story lies in the fusion of ecstasy and suffering. Through her death at the stake, Renata sacrifices her own being to unite with the angel. Fridman also sought to capture this theme in her arrangement. 'This music requires destruction to exist, and faith to surrender. It is the confirmation of the symbolists' idea that physical reality is nothing but a distorted echo of another realm.' Big words, which we Dutch shy away from, but which are self-evident to Russians.

Fridman has reduced the original to just under half an hour of music. In four 'chapters', she follows the original story closely. In the process, the abandon with which she shapes Renata's obsession splashes out from every note. Aggressive, percussive sounds depict the hell in her head; lyrical, more reflective passages express her longing for love. Fridman plays with a hard rock attitude and seems to want to literally shatter her cello at times. - On the gothic cover, she poses in a black leather suit, as an angel with wings of fire.

Bearded flageolets versus motorised rhythmics

Chapter 1 opens with firmly set strokes of the cello and pounding piano chords: the fire angel is knocking at the gate. Renata's shudder echoes in shaky flageolets and hesitant piano runs. Sultry piano chords and undulating lines of the cello capture the burgeoning love between her and Ruprecht. However, the idyll is disrupted by furious strokes on the cello's fretboard and a motoric rhythm.

As Ruprecht and Renata search in vain for Heinrich, we switch between bouncy, expectant cello loops, impressionistic piano tinkling and black despair. Loud knocks on the cello case create a startle effect: Heinrich does not show himself (yet), but he can be heard. In chapter 3, he rejects Renata again, whereupon she asks Ruprecht to kill him in a duel. Drifting strokes and bouncingly repeated double-strokes of the cello are accompanied by an orgy of pounding piano sounds.

Not coquettish

In the fourth and final movement, Renata seeks refuge in a monastery. A wistfully sighing cello and rippling piano create the illusion of regained peace. But instead of healing, Renata infects the nuns with her delusions. Fridman creates terrifying whistles, makes her instrument sound like a harmonica and dances a short tango. A series of furious figurations of both instruments is smothered in a loud thumping of cymbals: Renata ends in fire.

You cannot accuse Fridman and her pianist Artjem Belogurov of coquetry. They both play as if their lives depend on it. You will gladly forgive Fridman's occasional out-of-tune intonation. Like Rostropovich, she puts expressiveness above perfection.

For the upcoming Gaudeamus Music Week, she and pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama will create the performance Me, Peer Gynt. Something to look forward to.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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