While Prokofiev had written many provocative and often masterful piano compositions in his early career, this set of 20 pieces, along with the Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 14 (1912), may have been his most important works in the solo realm until he produced his cycle of so-called "War Sonatas," Nos. 6 (1940), 7 (1942) and 8 (1944). Certainly the range of mood and the subtle gradations of color found in the Visions Fugitives show a deepening of expression in the young composer, not evident in his other piano music from the period with the exception of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 16 (1913; rev. 1923) and the Piano Sonata No. 2.
This set of many very short piano sketches was composed at roughly the same time Schoenberg was struggling with tonality and tending to construct works of very short atonal units. Prokofiev's work, also constructed of short units, is far from atonal. But it does share some harmonic restlessness with the nearly contemporary works of Scriabin. This strange gem of piano writing, in many very tiny movements, evokes a half-dream in which one mood or impression is quickly replaced by a contrary or illogical leap out of the subconscious. It is one of Prokofiev's most striking and individual creations, unlike not only any other composer's piano music in tone and structure, but quite unlike much of Prokofiev's own music. It is certainy suited to listening with the lights dimmed and in a mood for free association. Incidentally, conductor Rudolf Barshai has arranged approximately the first two thirds of this set into an evocative orchestral version.
The title of the work, Visions Fugitives, is French for "Fleeting (or Fugitive) Visions." It derives from the words of Russian poet Konstantin Balmont: "In every fugitive vision I see worlds, full of the changing play of rainbow hues." Prokofiev thus fashioned an appropriate moniker for this assorted collection of short pieces, which in spirit -- though not in style -- are close to some of Schumann's piano compositions, like Carnaval.
Each of the 20 pieces bursts with musical ideas, and each conveys such vivid colors despite their generally short length -- the entire collection lasts about 20 to 22 minutes in a typical performance. Only two or three of the pieces run over two minutes, with most of the others having a duration of around a minute. Several clock in at about a half minute.
Of those in this last group, No. 5, marked Molto giocoso, is perky and not a note too short or too long in its 25-second length. No. 7 (Pittoresco) is dreamy and serene, and sounds close to the hazy but slightly darker No. 20 (Lento Irrealmente). The tart dissonances that lead off No. 9 (Allegretto tranquillo) sound almost gentle, even cute, but never threatening. Threatening is how No. 14 (Feroce) begins, but its middle section features a subtle and arresting lyrical theme. The gloomy and mysterious No. 12 (Assai moderato) contrasts nicely with its predecessor, the buoyant and playful No. 11 (Con vivacita). The innocence and peacefulness of No. 1 is quite appealing, but probably the most popular and one of the finest of the 20 pieces here is No. 16 (Dolente), whose falling theme has an air of gloomy meditation about it.
This work was first published in Russia in 1917 and is today among Prokofiev's most popular piano works, though the pieces are often played in recitals only as excerpts. Performances of the whole collection are relatively rare.